The N.C. Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 20 about the proposed merger of Progress Energy and Duke Energy to form the nation's largest electric utility, which would operate under the Duke Energy name.

The hearing represents the public's last chance to weigh in on the plan. If the merger is approved, the company would become the largest U.S. utility, worth over $35 billion and with more than 7 million customers in the Carolinas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

Shareholders for the two North Carolina-based companies voted overwhelmingly last month to approve the merger, which the utilities claim will provide savings to customers through efficiencies such as improved fuel-purchasing power. But consumer and environmental advocates question the fairness of the deal as it's now proposed, and they are calling on the Utilities Commission to impose conditions to protect the public interest.

"Whenever companies merge they sell it to us as something that's going to create greater efficiency, but that almost never happens," says Jeff Shaw, spokesperson for the N.C. Justice Center, which advocates on behalf of low-income communities. "In fact, the merged company gets more power, which means it can do what it wants."

Shaw's group belongs to a coalition of 11 consumer, environmental and faith-based groups working to ensure a better deal for ratepayers. Among the conditions the groups are calling for are improved home-weatherization and appliance-replacement initiatives, programs providing rate subsidies for low-income families, and protections against service cutoffs for customers unable to pay their bills.

That coalition and other groups are also pressing for stronger environmental protections as part of the merger, such as programs to dramatically increase the utility's use of wind and solar power in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while eliminating the need for expensive and risky new fossil-fuel and nuclear plants.

A petition being circulated by the N.C. Conservation Network says that the deal as now structured "could stifle innovation in North Carolina around energy efficiency and renewable energy. It could worsen pollution in our air and in our water and it could result in fewer jobs created in the state's promising green energy economy."

An independent analysis commissioned by Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found that if the merger is approved without changes, it would result in increased pollution from coal-fired power plants and a renewable-energy market dominated by a single utility. But the analysis also found that imposing the right conditions could spur clean-energy innovation, save customers money through improved energy efficiency, and create clean-energy jobs.

"The new Duke Energy faces a choice," says Gudrun Thompson, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing environmental groups in the merger case. "The company can choose to be a leader in clean, renewable energy and efficiency, or rely on old technology and polluting fossil fuels."