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Atomic alternatives 

Utility companies justify their push for more polluting nuclear and coal-fired plants by arguing that such operations are necessary to meet anticipated future demand from customers. For example, Progress Energy says its forecasts show it will need an additional 2,500 megawatts of generation by 2016.

The company hopes to satisfy some of that demand by promoting conservation. To that end, its latest issue of Carolina Life, a newsletter accompanying customers' bills, offers common-sense tips to save energy, such as turning off lights and appliances when not in use, adjusting thermostats and insulating homes to avoid heat waste.

However, Progress maintains that the bulk of its customers' anticipated energy needs must come from the traditional generation sources of nuclear and coal.

"Unfortunately, the technology for renewables like wind and solar are not advanced enough to generate large amounts of energy in a state like North Carolina," says company spokesperson Julie Hans.

But the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network of Durham challenges those claims. Executive Director Jim Warren points to other countries' achievements in switching to renewable energy. Germany, for instance, has made dramatic advances in solar and wind power since 1990, and its policymakers have committed to transition completely to renewable sources. Japan is pursuing solar power with such zeal that the technology's costs dropped 72 percent from 1994 to 2004. And Denmark's embrace of wind and cogeneration leveled that nation's energy demand between 1990 and 2000 while its economy grew.

Warren also notes that Progress and Duke Energy are actively fighting the transition to renewables. The two utilities together spent more than $23 million on federal and state campaigns and lobbyists from 2001 to 2004 to promote their agenda, which has often opposed the development of alternative energy sources.

For example, state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) this year introduced legislation to create a renewable energy portfolio standard for the state that would require 10 percent of the state's electricity to come from environmentally friendly energy sources such as wind. But Progress and Duke have opposed the legislation, which lawmakers are expected to take up again during next year's short session.

The utilities are not even doing all they can to promote efficiency. Since the 1980s, Progress and Duke have reduced programs to level out peak demand, Warren notes. They also continue to promote all-electric homes and block efforts to allow independent generators of renewable energy to feed extra electricity back to the grid, as most other states permit.

Fortunately, North Carolina has many efforts underway to develop and promote healthier, more environmentally sustainable energy:

  • Biomass. A number of projects in North Carolina are investigating methods for converting waste products such as wood residue, hog excrement and landfill gas to energy. For details, visit the N.C. State Energy Office's Web site at www.energync.net/programs/renewable/biomass.html.

  • Conservation. The N.C. State Energy Office offers conservation tips for residences, businesses, schools and governments at www.energync.net. N.C. WARN has also undertaken a power reduction campaign and offers tips on reducing energy usage at www.ncwarn.org/PowerReduction.

  • Green Power. NC GreenPower is a statewide program that encourages the development of renewable energy resources through consumers' voluntary funding of green power purchases by electric utilities in North Carolina. It's on the Web at www.ncgreenpower.org.

  • Solar. The N.C. Solar Center serves as a clearinghouse for solar and other renewable energy programs for the citizens of North Carolina and beyond. For more information, visit www.ncsc.ncsu.edu. The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association also offers resources on solar and other renewable energy sources at www.ncsustainableenergy.org.

  • Wind. The Energy Center at Appalachian State University in Boone is a leader in advancing wind technology. For details, visit the N.C. Wind Energy site at www.wind.appstate.edu.
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