Duke chief prepares to defend green plan

Duke Energy Corp. chief executive Jim Rogers was set to defend the utility's save-a-watt proposal before the N.C. Utilities Commission today as critics stage a protest rally outside the commission building.

Rogers plans to present the Charlotte-based utility's vision for dramatically reducing greenhouse gases, blamed as a cause of global warming. The utility is one of the nation's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, spewed from the smokestacks of its fleet of coal-fired power plants that operate in the Carolinas and three Midwest states.

Rogers' testimony follows a week of contentious hearings last month.

About 20 experts and officials debated the technical aspects of the proposal, meant to curb customer power use in North Carolina. The program would allow Duke to charge customers for successful conservation. But critics say the rate would be too high and the energy savings too little.

The save-a-watt proposal, however, has propelled Rogers to celebrity status as a champion of energy efficiency. He's been featured in Rolling Stone magazine and touted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

As Duke pushes ahead, the utility's lawyers are privately proposing a compromise with opponents, including the N.C. Attorney General's Office, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the commission's Public Staff, which is the agency's consumer advocacy arm.

The terms of the settlement proposed last month are confidential. Duke also is negotiating over save-a-watt in other states where the efficiency program also faces opposition. In Ohio, for example, Duke has proposed to cap its profits from save-a-watt and refund excess profits.

Critics of the N.C. proposal say save-a-watt would cost customers 21/2 times as much as typical efficiency programs but deliver less efficiency. The proposal is opposed by church groups, consumer advocates, environmentalists and the public staff.

In testimony filed with the commission, Rogers said the current regulatory model economically penalizes utilities for promoting conservation and efficiency. As a result, utilities are financially motivated to build new power plants rather than curb new demand through efficiency programs.