Duke Energy's earnings are up

Duke Energy is incrementally recovering from the nation's prolonged economic downturn, but it may take several years for the utility's electricity sales to return to pre-recession levels.

In its first-quarter earnings release Tuesday, the Charlotte-based power company said household electricity usage was down about 2 percent from a year ago, while overall electricity sales were flat in Duke's five-state operating area.

Duke CEO Jim Rogers said the power company doesn't expect to see its 2007 sales levels again for at least three years. Duke has 1.8 million customers in North Carolina.

Still, the company reported a strong first quarter, driven by its South American energy operations. Overall operating revenue was up 2 percent to $3.7 billion while per share earnings grew 8 percent to 39 cents.

Several utility analysts said Duke's financial performance in the first quarter held few surprises but offered a broad outline of the state of the nation's power industry: a period of stagnant growth with the looming prospect of multibillion-dollar expenses down the road.

Nationwide, electric utility sales were down about 4 percent last year. Regulated power companies like Duke have a captive customer base and are somewhat protected from economic volatility, but customers have cut back on energy use as the economy has slowed.

Energy experts expected industrial customers to lower output and shut down operations. But the cutback among residential customers, the first such trend measured since World War II, took the electric industry by surprise. Some of the household energy reductions may be due to conservation programs and improved efficiency standards, but the phenomenon is largely pegged to the economic downturn.

Duke's industrial sales were up 3.7 percent in the first quarter and had been recovering throughout 2010.

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