Protesters say utility will gouge customers

Placards and denunciations kicked off what's expected to be a contentious week of regulatory hearings on Duke Energy's energy efficiency proposal, save-a-watt.

The Charlotte-based utility on Monday began defending save-a-watt against charges that it would gouge Duke Energy customers and benefit the company's shareholders. Duke Energy touts save-a-watt as a national model for energy efficiency that would provide power companies a generous financial incentive to promote energy conservation.

The company is seeking approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission to offer the program to its customers in the state and charge extra to administer it. Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate about 75 people who packed the normally sparsely attended commission hearing room.

“Our proposal will allow us to be more successful in pushing energy efficiency to our customers,” Ellen Ruff, president of Duke Energy Carolinas, told the utilities commission. For much of the afternoon, Ruff fended off technical questions from the state Attorney General's office and other lawyers representing the public.

Duke proposes to install new technologies and offer discounts and rebates to customers who invest in energy efficiency appliances and other upgrades for the home and office. Duke is seeking to recover its investment and overhead, recoup its lost revenue from the energy savings and make a profit on the program. The amount of the profit is the subject of contention.

Before the hearings began in Raleigh, about a dozen people staged a rally featuring speakers from N.C. Public Interest Research Group, Clean Water for North Carolina and the N.C. Public Service Workers' Union.

Critics say save-a-watt is thin on efficiency and fat on corporate profits. According to an analysis by the Public Staff, the state's consumer advocacy arm, Duke is seeking a 61 percent margin on save-a-watt. Instead, the company should be allowed a margin of about 6.8 percent, the Public Staff recommends.

More than a dozen organizations – church groups, consumer advocates, environmentalists, businesses and the city of Durham – oppose Duke's proposal. On Monday, they urged regulators to reject the plan.

“They're trying to take advantage of people's good will for energy efficiency,” said Shana Becker, staff attorney for NCPIRG, after the public rally. “They're trying to make the most money that they can without effecting their business model, which is to try to generate energy.”

Duke Energy, with 1.8 million customers in the state, has lined up a dozen experts and executives to defend save-a-watt.