Progress Energy website solicits voices

Utility promises free discussion

Staff WriterJune 7, 2011 

The folks at Progress Energy are tired of being considered stodgy, boring, unimaginative - and they're fighting back with a new blog.

Raleigh-based Progress is presenting itself online as a contemporary power company, open to discussing hot-button energy issues in an uncensored, no-spin zone it calls the Energy Forum.

Progress officials think they are among the first utilities to sponsor an open chat room that fosters freewheeling discussion and even encourages critics to take their potshots at the official company line.

"Our goal is to incorporate more than just Progress Energy voices on our blog," said company spokesman Scott Sutton, the website's primary contributor so far. "We will not delete a comment that is critical of, or an opposing view, of the company."

The general idea is that static one-way websites are passé, and companies across the spectrum are seeking a way to get their message out in a way that doesn't come off like a corporate branding exercise with canned talking points. It's largely uncharted territory for electric utilities, the big-industry traditionalists that tend not to be early adopters or trend-setters.

The exercise - which Sutton calls "an experiment" - will likely expose the company to some degree of public criticism. Progress has admirers in the business and investing community, but a portion of the population will regard any Fortune 500 corporation with suspicion. The Progress site went live just last week, so it remains to be seen if the company's fans outnumber detractors.

Subjects like nuclear, wind and solar power can be very divisive, at times engendering outright hostility.

Still, Sutton said critical commentary will not be purged as long as it complies with general guidelines of civility.

At Progress, the company's public relations shop will moderate the website and supply primary content.

What activists say

Several environmental activists said it's remarkable that Progress is unwilling to cede control of its message.

"The utilities have such an institutional bias that sometimes I'm not sure they're self-aware," said Stephen Smith, executive director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Asheville.

Smith said the site's home page offers a case-in-point. One of the lead items emphasizes the limitations of solar power, explaining why it's not available 24 hours a day, without a single reference to solar energy as a clean, pollution-free energy resource or other benefits.

The Progress site also includes a two-paragraph item saying the company has signed contracts for more than 100 megawatts of renewable energy to comply with the state's green-energy mandates.

Duke's point of view

Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based utility that has proposed buying Progress, started a web forum two years ago, but visitors will have to search to find the corporate logo identifying Duke as the sponsor.

Duke's site includes assorted public comments and also man-on-the-street videos filmed in downtown Charlotte by Capstrat, the Raleigh public relations firm.

But the main page of the site is devoted to commentary written by energy experts picked by Duke, including a resident scholar from the conservative John Locke Foundation who argues against energy sustainability.

The site is unabashedly pro-nuclear, assuring readers: "From bananas to bedmates, radiation is everywhere."

The three community comments on the home page are critical of compact fluorescent bulbs, wind energy and alternative energy in general.

Duke spokesman Tim Pettit said the site was never intended to conceal the company's perspective. "It's an education and advocacy website without a shadow of a doubt," Pettit said.

But public comments are welcome, he said, and the site has had had 115,000 visitors since it was launched.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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