My inclination is to combine Duke Energy's (NYSE: DUK) December results with the sorts of statements emanating from the company's CEO and call those results something of a pause. Indeed, the company's relative dip in earnings, while below those of a year ago, clearly exceeded expectations.

For the quarter, the Charlotte-based public utility company earned $271 million, or $0.21 a share. Those numbers were down from $387 million, or $0.31 per share, in the final quarter of 2006. But by backing out the one-time stuff and the results of discontinued operations, you get $0.27 for the quarter. The remainder of the shortfall from a year ago was generally tied to higher costs. The consensus forecast had been closer to $0.24.

Duke's discontinued operations that were part of the company in the December 2006 quarter, but not in the most recent period, consisted primarily of Houston-based Spectra Energy (NYSE: SE), which gathers, processes, transmits, and stores natural gas. That company, which was spun off to shareholders by Duke early last year, reported its own estimate-beating results on Wednesday.

Two years ago, Duke merged with Ohio-based Cinergy Corp. to form a company that serves customers in the Carolinas, the Midwest, and Latin America. Now, CEO Jim Rogers, who once held the same position at Cinergy, is making noise about Duke potentially looking at acquisitions in the fragmented public utility industry. On that basis alone, Duke, which also sports a 4.7% forward dividend yield, could be interesting to income-oriented investors.

In the meantime, Duke's quarter was surpassed somewhat by that of its fellow Dixie-based Income Investor selection Southern Company (NYSE: SO). At the same time, the company joined several other U.S. utilities, including Exelon (NYSE: EXC), in chalking up what, in sum, were mixed results.

My inclination, then, is to watch the company closely in here -- and maybe take an occasional nibble for the nutritional value of the dividend. I'll also be alert for a manifestation of Rogers' comments about an expansion-inducing deal.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments. The Motley Fool has a powerful disclosure policy.