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Some call for higher goal in alternative energy rule

A year ago, North Carolina took a radical step: requiring that up to 12.5 percent of the state's electricity come from alternative energy, such as solar power or conservation programs.

It was the first such requirement in the Southeast and hailed as a major victory for environmentalists.

But environmental advocates now say the state's electric utilities – including Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Raleigh-based Progress Energy – got off too easy. Some say nearly a third of the state's power could come from conservation programs.

Energy conservation is increasingly touted as an alternative to new power plants, but in this state efficiency advocates are in a race against the clock to tap that alternative. Progress and Duke are proposing six new nuclear reactors in the Carolinas and Florida. Duke this year began construction on its Cliffside coal-burning power plant in Rutherford County, 55 miles west of Charlotte.

If major power plants are built, they would satisfy the state's electricity needs for the next half-century, wiping out any urgency to try other options, the advocates fear. The rationale for building new power plants is based on the utilities' growth forecasts, which show unabated population growth.

With new power plants on the horizon, the utility forecasts have taken on urgent significance and will be scrutinized at a public hearing in Raleigh July 1 before the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, a Durham group, contends the utility forecasts are flawed because they underestimate the potential of conservation programs.

If state regulators agree, the utilities could be required to revise their forecasts, undermining the case for new power plants.

“That's the core of the whole thing,” said NC WARN director Jim Warren. “We can move ahead without power plants and keep power bills down and cut greenhouse gases.”

Utility growth projections in this state are rarely questioned and typically accepted as scientifically valid, even though the power companies in past years have overestimated statewide energy demand by as much as 8.5 percent, according to filings with the utilities commission.

For decades, North Carolina's appetite for cheap electricity has grown unchecked as new residents have favored spacious homes that suck power to run computers, entertainment centers and plasma screen televisions.

Efficiency advocates are convinced that if Progress and Duke paid customers generously to conserve, statewide electricity use would stay flat – even with North Carolina's relentless population growth.

The math tells a different story, said Robert Gruber, director of the Public Staff, the state's consumer advocacy agency. A utility company can expect to reduce a power demand by only about 1 percent a year, he said. That may be enough to flatten overall power demand in some states, but not in a state like North Carolina that's growing at a rapid clip and adding 100,000 electric customer accounts a year.

Complicating the picture are North Carolina's electricity rates, among the cheapest in the nation. The cheaper the cost of power, the less likely are people to pay extra for high-efficiency appliances and other energy-saving upgrades, regardless of the financial incentives utilities offer.

Progress Energy is forecasting a 1.8 percent annual growth rate, but the Raleigh-based utility is planning to slow the electricity demand to 1.1 percent a year through conservation programs, according to filings with the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Progress is adding about 25,000 customer accounts a year, Duke about 50,000 annually.

Utility officials insist that ruling out new power plants would wreak havoc with the state's electricity supply, as has already happened in California and the Northeast, they warn.

“To imply that we can meet all that growth with energy efficiency alone is irresponsible and just plain wrong,” said Progress spokesman Mike Hughes.

Duke is proposing to offset its electricity demand by 1.6 percent over then next five years through conservation programs.

“It takes time to get people to embrace and change their habits,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan.

A year ago, North Carolina took a radical step: requiring that up to 12.5 percent of the state's electricity come from alternative energy, such as solar power or conservation programs.

It was the first such requirement in the Southeast and hailed as a major victory for environmentalists.

But environmental advocates now say the state's electric utilities – including Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Raleigh-based Progress Energy – got off too easy. Some say nearly a third of the state's power could come from conservation programs.

Energy conservation is increasingly touted as an alternative to new power plants, but in this state efficiency advocates are in a race against the clock to tap that alternative. Progress and Duke are proposing six new nuclear reactors in the Carolinas and Florida. Duke this year began construction on its Cliffside coal-burning power plant in Rutherford County, 55 miles west of Charlotte.

If major power plants are built, they would satisfy the state's electricity needs for the next half-century, wiping out any urgency to try other options, the advocates fear. The rationale for building new power plants is based on the utilities' growth forecasts, which show unabated population growth.

With new power plants on the horizon, the utility forecasts have taken on urgent significance and will be scrutinized at a public hearing in Raleigh July 1 before the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, a Durham group, contends the utility forecasts are flawed because they underestimate the potential of conservation programs.

If state regulators agree, the utilities could be required to revise their forecasts, undermining the case for new power plants.

“That's the core of the whole thing,” said NC WARN director Jim Warren. “We can move ahead without power plants and keep power bills down and cut greenhouse gases.”

Utility growth projections in this state are rarely questioned and typically accepted as scientifically valid, even though the power companies in past years have overestimated statewide energy demand by as much as 8.5 percent, according to filings with the utilities commission.

For decades, North Carolina's appetite for cheap electricity has grown unchecked as new residents have favored spacious homes that suck power to run computers, entertainment centers and plasma screen televisions.

Efficiency advocates are convinced that if Progress and Duke paid customers generously to conserve, statewide electricity use would stay flat – even with North Carolina's relentless population growth.

The math tells a different story, said Robert Gruber, director of the Public Staff, the state's consumer advocacy agency. A utility company can expect to reduce a power demand by only about 1 percent a year, he said. That may be enough to flatten overall power demand in some states, but not in a state like North Carolina that's growing at a rapid clip and adding 100,000 electric customer accounts a year.

Complicating the picture are North Carolina's electricity rates, among the cheapest in the nation. The cheaper the cost of power, the less likely are people to pay extra for high-efficiency appliances and other energy-saving upgrades, regardless of the financial incentives utilities offer.

Progress Energy is forecasting a 1.8 percent annual growth rate, but the Raleigh-based utility is planning to slow the electricity demand to 1.1 percent a year through conservation programs, according to filings with the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Progress is adding about 25,000 customer accounts a year, Duke about 50,000 annually.

Utility officials insist that ruling out new power plants would wreak havoc with the state's electricity supply, as has already happened in California and the Northeast, they warn.

“To imply that we can meet all that growth with energy efficiency alone is irresponsible and just plain wrong,” said Progress spokesman Mike Hughes.

Duke is proposing to offset its electricity demand by 1.6 percent over then next five years through conservation programs.

“It takes time to get people to embrace and change their habits,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan.

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