By Gracia O’Neill

North Carolina faces a critical decision on the growing costs and environmental damage caused by energy production. Announcing a proposed major rate hike recently, to average over $130 per year, per household, Duke Energy says it’s to supply “reliable energy,” which means they’ll generate and sell more power. North Carolina’s utilities want to build $35-40 billion worth of new coal and nuclear power plants, with Duke’s rate increase being a first installment on increases that could total over 50 percent for construction. That approach assumes ever-increasing power demand, despite recent data reflecting flat or even decreasing consumption.

That’s why more than 30 North Carolina social justice, religious, consumer and environmental groups instead support an approach that would create hundreds or even thousands of "green" jobs and crank down our demand for power, through a state-wide energy efficiency program called NC SAVE$ ENERGY.

Energy efficiency is the fastest, cleanest and cheapest way to control energy bills, and the best route to economic, environmental and health benefits. Efficiency costs less than one-fourth as much as new nuclear power and creates more new jobs. Every county has thousands of homes in urgent need of weatherization. Last year, the United Way's western North Carolina “2-1-1” helpline fielded more requests for assistance paying utility bills than any other service.

The 2007-2008 drought was also a wake-up call. Duke Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority plants actually had to power-down operations in August, 2007 for lack of the huge volumes of clean, cool water needed to operate each day. North Carolina's coal and nuclear power plants account for over 80 percent of registered water withdrawals, evaporating over a billion gallons each day. Some utilities are already raising electricity rates, knowing they will compete with households, businesses and farms for water in future droughts.

Although the state’s "caulk gun ready" weatherization programs are getting a boost from the federal recovery package, only a fraction of households will get needed assistance during the next two years. Further, the new jobs created will disappear when the money’s gone. To hold on to those new jobs and continue improving communities’ housing stock, we need an independent (non-utility) state-wide efficiency program with a “public benefit fund.” This assumes long term funding, and reaches more homes, public buildings and eventually businesses.

Efficient use of electricity and natural gas short-circuits the need for new water-hogging, polluting power plants, and keeps money in the pockets of the people who need it most. Efficiency programs run by investor-owned utilities do little (especially for low income households) and favor profits for shareholders over the public.

A 2007 report by Synapse Energy Economics examined six states' independent (non-utility) efficiency programs, which save hundreds of thousands of megawatt hours annually, reducing natural gas use and slashing thousands of tons of air pollutants. In 2007, New York’s low income participants saved an average of $220 per household. Vermont achieved enough efficiency gains to more than compensate for new energy customers. All of the state’s programs are independently audited each year, as NC SAVE$ ENERGY would be.

NC SAVE$ ENERGY's first priority is to reduce energy use in existing housing of low and moderate income residents, with possible future expansion to business and other sectors. Savings on utility bills will quickly pay for energy improvements performed by nonprofit and business contractors certified by the new program.

A small fee on utility bills would be the main funding, but grants, bonds, or selling carbon credits are other possible sources. NC SAVE$ ENERGY would cost an average of less than $2 a household per month, with substantial savings as homes get energy upgrades. Compare that to the $130 increase per year if Duke's rate increase is granted to pay for new power plants that we simply don’t need.

Here's an unparalleled opportunity to respond to the economic downturn without new appropriations in a scary budget year. NC SAVE$ ENERGY will create and sustain new jobs, offer savings for households and yield a safer, more secure energy future.
O'Neill is the assistant director at Clean Water for North Carolina (, a statewide environmental justice organization with offices in Asheville and Durham.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


Anonymous said...

That's the good opportunity to grow upwards...

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