As the N.C. Public Utilities Commission opened hearings yesterday on Duke Energy's controversial Save-a-Watt energy efficiency proposal, the plan's opponents called on commissioners to remove the conflict of interest inherent in having an investor-owned energy company promote efficiency -- by establishing an independent energy conservation program.

Crafted to make reducing customers' energy usage profitable, Duke's Save-a-Watt program has sparked opposition from a wide range of organizations. Environmental advocates say the plan's emphasis on off-peak load shifting doesn't do enough to reduce overall energy consumption. Consumer advocates point out that the program would charge $18.23 for promoting an efficient light bulb that retails for $1.65. Faith groups are concerned that the program would unfairly require poor ratepayers to subsidize their wealthier counterparts. And companies including Wal-Mart say they should be able to launch their own conservation initiatives instead of being forced to pay a monopoly's inflated costs.

Duke's own data raise questions about Save-a-Watt's effectiveness. The company says the program's cumulative energy savings would be 1 percent -- which is 91.6 percent less than the average of top-performing efficiency programs. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average top-performing efficiency programs save 11.9 percent, with the best-performing program saving 17.7 percent.

That's why Save-a-Watt's opponents are calling for a different approach to energy conservation in North Carolina. Before yesterday's hearing opened, they held a press conference outside the commission's offices calling for the establishment of a statewide, independently run energy efficiency program.

"Let's stop messing around with trying to compensate utilities to overcome their deep conflicts of interest in implementing energy efficiency programs," said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. "Independently run energy efficiency programs not only save more energy and cost less money, they also create jobs, reduce toxic and greenhouse emissions, and cut billions of gallons a day of water use and degradation."

Last year, Taylor's group commissioned a study of independent energy efficiency programs in six states: New York, Vermont, Oregon, Wisconsin, Maine and New Jersey. It found that one of the benefits of such programs is the fact that an independent administrator is concerned solely with the implementation of energy efficiency rather than worrying about falling revenues. In addition, an independent entity administering programs across multiple service territories can achieve economies of scale not possible with individual utilities. To read the full report, click here for the Word document.