Real 'progress'

Duke Energy and Progress Energy should do more investing in weatherization as part of merger.

October 1, 2011 

Before Duke Energy and Progress Energy waltz merrily into the future as one super-big, super-powerful utility company, some more concessions need to be made in terms of the new company's investment in weatherization of older, poorly insulated homes. Many of those homes belong to people who can't afford such work or are owned by absentee landlords who aren't inclined to make the investment.

As noted in an article on the Other Opinion page this past Monday, the companies pledge that as part of a good-faith effort in the course of their merger, they'll invest $15 million in weatherization. Rob Schofield of N.C. Policy Watch and Al Ripley of the N.C. Justice Center, who wrote the article, report that relatively speaking, this isn't even a drop in the bucket. It's more like a bit of dew dropped off the eyelash of a fly.

The merger deal, after all, is valued, including the debt Duke is assuming, at something around $26 billion.

The companies have made their pitch that merger will be more efficient, make their services more effective, forestall the possible purchase of one or the other by an out-of-state company and in the long term will save customers money. Some critics see a mega-company, the largest utility in the United States, answering to few if any and having so much political clout that the new Duke Energy (that will be the new name) will in effect hold the Legislative Building as an annex.

Any merger has pluses and minuses, and this one is no different. All in all, with some caveats, the merger seems logical enough.

But Schofield and Ripley make a very good case for the companies, with executives paid in the multimillions, to put a lot more money into weatherization projects.

Such efforts obviously are environmentally friendly, saving energy and preventing, house to house, further long-term deterioration of the environment. But they also help flesh-and-blood people right here, right now. A poorly insulated house chomps on an all-you-can-eat buffet of energy and money. Owners or renters of such places spend a large percentage of their incomes, many of which are dwindling these days, on even minimal heat and air conditioning.

The state Utilities Commission has the authority to demand more in exchange for this merger. And in the case of weatherization it should be much more. Schofield and Ripley noted that at an average weatherization cost of $5,200 per home, the amount designated by the companies would cover fewer than 3,000 homes that need help. That's out of 1 million homes in the state that could qualify under many guidelines for assistance.

The offered money falls short. The commission needs to bump it up, do more to help customers save money and do more to conserve energy.

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