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Charlotte Area News

Duke Energy In The Indiana Hot Seat

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers spent three hours in the hot seat Wednesday morning defending his company's plans for a new multi-billion dollar coal power plant in Indiana. The power plant in Edwardsport, Indiana is already half built, but Duke Energy still needs approval from state regulators to pass the cost of the plant on to its customers. Duke was cruising over that final hurdle when a scandal erupted over the summer: A top attorney in the Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission took a job with Duke, which he appears to have negotiated at the same time he was overseeing decisions about Duke's new power plant. So regulators summoned Duke CEO Jim Rogers to Indiana to defend the need for the plant all over again. Rogers told regulators he's confident the decisions were fair. "I do not believe there have been any inappropriate ex parte communications with this commission with respect to this plant," said Rogers. Indiana state authorities are investigating the situation. Duke Energy has hired an outside firm to conduct an internal investigation. Rogers said the results of that investigation will not be made public, but added the Duke will take any steps necessary to address the findings. The scandal has placed Duke's new coal-fired Indiana power plant in jeopardy. "It is the cornerstone of our strategy to modernize our coal plants and answer our customer's needs in the future," Rogers told regulators at the hearing. Duke Energy has already spent $2 billion of the nearly $3 billion it estimates the plant will now cost. The whole project is twice as expensive as Duke originally estimated and at least a year behind the original schedule. That was the focus of several questions utilities commissioners and citizens groups peppered Rogers with during hearing broadcast live online. ""How would you explain the cost overruns?" asked Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission Chairman James Atterholt. "How come some of this risk in terms of these cost overruns wasn't transferred to the contractors - to the engineering firms. How did you manage that as a company?" Rogers responded that Duke's engineering contractors may have been at fault for underestimating the price tag, but now is not the time to place blame. "It is very important to keep everybody focused in getting this done right, at the lowest cost as soon as possible," said Rogers. "We'll sort it all out when we're finished." Duke has already signed an agreement that would limit the additional cost to ratepayers if the plant grows more expensive. Environmental groups say there's no need for another coal-fired power plant in Indiana, even if burns coal as clean as Duke promises. They hope to see the project derailed and have latched onto the hiring ethics scandal as a way to call the entire plant into question.