President Clinton's hopes of reducing gases believed to cause global warming rely heavily on getting people to conserve electricity. But utility executives say new competitive pressures may make attaining that goal more difficult.
During a three-day convention of the nation's 190 privately owned electric utilities, executives debated the impact of the trend toward increased competition among utilities."Increased competition is going to bring down (electricity) costs," said Bill Lee, chairman of North Carolina-based Duke Power Co.
But environmentalists fear that as consumers, especially industrial ones, get cheaper electricity, they will be less likely to invest in more efficient lighting, air-conditioning systems and machinery.
As electric companies battle to keep down their own costs, expensive programs to subsidize the purchase of more efficient appliances may become less attractive for utility managers. Last year, private utilities spent an estimated $2.5 billion on various conservation programs, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's trade association.
The issue gained widespread attention when California regulators recently announced they wanted to make it easier for customers, especially industrial users, to shop around for electricity and get the best price.
Some see this new competition as healthy, a way to make the industry more efficient and give customers - especially large-volume industrial users - freedom to seek out lower rates. Others perceive it as a threat to energy conservation programs and efforts to stem global warming.