By Richard Fireman, MD

Sometimes the adage "Too many cooks spoil the broth" doesn’t apply -- especially when you are brewing something special outside of the kitchen.

Thirty-two advocacy groups from the consumer protection, housing, justice, civil rights, faith, and environmental communities have been busy cooking up an energy efficiency proposal called NC SAVE$ ENERGY. Now being considered by the state, the plan has support from all sides of the political table, because it serves the economic, moral, health and social needs of their constituents.

The only organizations that seem to be unhappy with the energy plan are the utilities that have failed their public duty with decades of disregard of the mandate from the North Carolina Utilities Commission to "include use of the entire spectrum of demand-side options, including but not limited to conservation, load management and efficiency programs."

The result of this failure from investor-owned utilities is that North Carolina ranked 46th out of 50 states in spending per capita on energy efficiency and conservation measures -- a meager 44 pennies per person or $3.8 million for the whole state.

A 2007 decision to allow Duke Energy to build a huge new coal-fired Cliffside power plant required the company to spend 1 percent of its income on efficiency. Duke proposed "Save-a-Watt" as their efficiency program -- which was widely criticized as "doing too little and costing too much." South Carolina's Utility Commission rejected the proposal outright. In North Carolina, where the Utility Commission historically bends over backwards to do the bidding of the investor owned utilities, the Commission approved Save-a-Watt, but asked Duke to come back with new financing numbers. This attempt by Duke to get into the energy efficiency business would generate only 1.9 percent of energy savings to North Carolina by 2018.

Are we surprised? The facts are clear. Investor-owned utilities have an inherent conflict of interest in promoting conservation and efficiency. They increase their profits by building new plants and selling more electricity. They lose money when consumers use less.

In fact, both Duke and Progress Energy have laid out a very expensive menu for North Carolina citizens. The new Cliffside and four new nuclear power plants will guarantee a 50 to 100 percent rate increase in power bills.

There is a better way. A study by Clean Water for North Carolina found that efficiency programs run by independent public agencies or nonprofits demonstrated that the independent administrators accomplished large reductions in energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In New York, participating homes were saving an average of $225 a year on utility bills while reducing the statewide peak demand for electricity by 1,000 megawatts (enough power for as many as 1 million homes). As an added bonus 4,800 jobs were created/retained.

NC SAVE$ ENERGY will provide the same kind of economic and energy savings for North Carolina citizens. For a small surcharge of between $1 to $2 per month on energy bills of residential customers, the nonprofit NC SAVE$ ENERGY administrator will develop, administer, and promote programs that will help transition us to a cleaner, safer, healthier and more economically dynamic energy economy.

Energy efficiency and conservation are the fastest, safest, healthiest and cheapest way to transform our energy economy. The cost for energy efficiency is about 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, while the price for new nuclear power is 25 cents and rising yearly. The green job economy is waiting for our state leadership to step up to the plate.

Every community needs this program. United Way of Western North Carolina revealed that the most common call for assistance was relief for energy bills that couldn't be paid. A 2007 report revealed that over 3 million homes in the state need energy efficiency upgrades.

With NC SAVE$ ENERGY providing long term funding and comprehensive education, training and outreach, all local economies will be stimulated as homes are weatherized, appliances upgraded, and energy efficiency devices are installed. Local businesses will grow. Living wage jobs will be created.

We must face a reality of worsening and extreme weather patterns. We are in a drought and climate change will make it worse. Coal and nuclear electric generation wastefully withdraws more water from our rivers and lakes than all other uses combined. Water must be conserved for agricultural, livestock, and human consumption.

The bottom line is clear. The utilities' way is wasteful of our money, our climate, our water and our health. It makes no sense when a clear, proven, alternative is available.
Dr. Fireman is public policy coordinator on North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light, a program of the North Carolina Council of Churches.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 5/09