Although Duke Energy Carolinas’ Janice Hager previously said it wasn’t possible, the utility has unveiled an energy efficiency plan that, over four years, could generate 1,700 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to two large coal-fired power plants.

Save-a-Watt includes energy audits, customer incentives for energy efficient products, and credits for reducing electricity use during peak times. Customers would pay for the program with a “rider” on their bills, but Duke estimates it would cost 10 percent less than increases for new power plants.

Last fall, Hager, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs, testified before the N.C. Utilities Commission that “We’re not adding any more energy efficiency beyond 101 megawatts.”

Duke’s turnabout comes shortly after the N.C. Utilities Commission approved only one of two requested new coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, Duke, environmentalists and utilities commission public staff have met about increasing the utility’s commitment to clean energy. State lawmakers also have introduced more than a dozen bills dealing with renewables or efficiency.

“I think that it’s clear they’ve been hearing a growing public outcry that North Carolina wants efficiency and clean energy instead of dirty plants, coal or nuclear,” said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness & Reduction Network.

Save-a-Watt doesn’t preclude Duke from building new plants. Nonetheless, environmental groups cautiously applauded Duke’s effort. In a prepared statement, Michael Shore, Environmental Defense senior air policy analyst, called the program “promising,” but noted that “the program must be fair to rate payers. Duke Energy’s proposal should be scrutinized carefully to ensure it finds that balance.”