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Northeast is outgrowing its power base and faces brownouts

New Englanders face the possibility of brownouts this summer, and prospects for the years ahead look grim. Electric utilities breathed a sigh of relief during the hot, muggy spell just ended when cloud cover kept temperatures down somewhat. Electricity use peaked July 10 at 16,947 megawatts, a mere 100 MW below the 1985 record for New England.

New England utilities had to use only the first three elements in Operating Procedure No. 4, emergency steps they take during an electricity shortage.

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They bought power from adjacent pools (Quebec in this case), used customer-generated power, and obtained some voluntary reduction by utility members of the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL).

If New England suffers a heat wave in August, the capacity crunch could be worse. There is a potential shortage of 2,500 to 3,000 MW, says William P. Sheperdson, a spokesman for NEPOOL, which represents utilities providing 99.5 percent of the region's power.

A key element in this possible power shortage is the scheduled shutdown of three nuclear plants (Vermont Yankee, Connecticut Yankee, and Millstone I) for maintenance and refueling.

A fourth, Pilgrim in Plymouth, Mass., has been shut down for repairs for some months. The shutdown periods will overlap Aug. 9-22, taking out 2,386 MW altogether.

There's now also a possibility that a fifth nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee, may not reopen before this period. The 845-MW plant has been troubled by a vibration problem in a generator.

A Conservation Law Foundation attorney, Armond Cohen, says the simultaneous shutdown of these major power sources during the summer peak in demand represents bad management by the utilities.

Mr. Sheperdson says there are technical and economic reasons for the shutdowns during the same period.

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Should those shutdowns occur, New England utilities would need to reduce voltages by as much as 5 percent, ask for voluntary cutbacks by industrial and commercial customers, seek further reductions through public appeals, and, if worse came to worst, disconnect customers - in other words, brownouts or blackouts.

The New England energy crunch has serious political implications, particularly with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis seeking the Democratic nomination for president and opposing the start-up of the completed 1,150-MW Seabrook I nuclear plant in New Hampshire.

In June, the nonprofit Foundation for Economic Research (FER) warned of both short- and long-term power shortages for the Northeast in a report titled ``Will the Lights Go Out in New England?''

When the FER report came out, Sharon M. Pollard, secretary of the governor's executive office of energy resources, called a press conference to place blame for any blackouts on the utilities.

There should be sufficient electricity supplies ``as long as the region's utilities take appropriate action,'' she said. She conceded that supplies would be tight. But her calculations showed a 760 MW surplus at times of peak load, she said.

James E. Brackbill III, FER's associate director of research, says Ms. Pollard's calculations are mistaken. They set aside operating reserves for New England utilities of 1,700 MW and then add 1,500 MW of those reserves in again as a capacity contribution under NEPOOL Operating Procedure No. 4. That would leave just 200 MW in reserve, totally inadequate for so large a regional power pool, he says.

The tight power picture this summer has added immediacy to a debate on how New England should meet its power needs.

With the economic boom in the region, total power sales have been growing at a 5 percent rate this year, and about 4 percent over the last three years. Those rates are well above the 2.2 percent annual growth rate to the year 2000 predicted by NEPOOL and a related study of the New England Governors' Conference.

Those capacity and demand predictions indicate the need for new capacity or reduced demand by 1995. And they assume that the 750-MW Pilgrim nuclear power plant will be restored to operation and that the controversial Seabrook plant will get permission to begin operation in 1988. Further, a plan to buy 1,500 MW from Hydro-Quebec starting in 1990 was rejected last month by the Canadian National Energy Board.

Without Seabrook, Pilgrim, and added power from Quebec, New England is short 1,192 MW at peak demand this summer, according to the FER report. By 1995, the region will be short 3,519 to 3,819 MW.

If there is no recession and demand grows at the recent pace, the power shortage could be even greater. The report says power shortages could cost the region $20 billion to $50 billion in lost economic product and 400,000 to 900,000 jobs.

The New England Energy Policy Council Tuesday suggested that the utilities implement dramatic conservation measures to keep present electricity demand about steady to the turn of the century.

The FER says conservation, load management, cogeneration (power provided a utility as a byproduct of business operations), and small power production should all be pursued. But, the free-enterprise group maintains, these do not offer large enough benefits to eliminate the power shortage. It calls for getting the existing Pilgrim and Seabrook I plants on line and considering a second nuclear power plant at Seabrook.

The New England Governors' Conference, in a report last December, suggested a range of measures, such as not retiring old plants, conservation, load management, getting sites ready and the government permits necessary for quick installation of peak generating units, offering special interruptible power rates, encouraging cogeneration and small power plants, removal of transmission bottlenecks, and so on.

There are other power projects under consideration.

Iroquois Gas Transmission System has proposed a $400 million pipeline to bring Canadian natural gas from the border in upstate New York through that state and Connecticut and onto Long Island Sound. Some of that gas could replace demand for electricity or supply gas-turbine electricity generating units. Other gas-pipeline proposals are less advanced than the Iroquois plan.

Several trash power plants have been proposed. There has been talk of New Brunswick building a major coal or nuclear power plant for export of power to New England.

Free bulbs and conservation savings

Should New England utilities hand out free or extremely cheap light bulbs to their customers?

Yes, if they are the highly efficient ones selling for about $20 each, says Armond Cohen, who helped write a new study by the New England Energy Policy Council. These fluorescent bulbs use 18 watts to generate the same light as a 75-watt incandescent bulb.

Utilities should subsidize extra insulation in houses with electric heat. They should subsidize efficient air conditioning and efficient motors.

Mr. Cohen says such conservation measures would be about half as expensive for the utilities as adding new generating capacity.

Utilities should be allowed to add these costs to their rate base, just as they can add the cost of new generating facilities, he says.

In the case of industrial or commercial customers, some savings in lower power consumption from subsidized conservation measures could be kept by the utility, some by the customer, he adds.

The report holds that an all-out conservation program could eliminate the need for new generating capacity - and save money, too.

A New England Power Pool spokesman notes that its projections to the year 2000 already include several thousand megawatts of reduced power demand as a result of utility conservation measures.

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