PURPA? Few Americans know what it is, but the current congressional struggle over it is part of an essential worldwide effort to provide energy and save resources at the same time. For national power needs in various countries are increasingly being met through a multitude of wind, water, solar, and waste powered electricity sources that mean fewer huge fuel-gobbling plants are required. And PURPA (Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) is being amended to make it more effective in encouraging the spread of such small producers of power in the US.
Already the federal government has granted applications for small power producers and cogeneration facilities (which produce both heat and electricity) with a combined capacity of 4,200 megawatts, more than that of five typical nuclear power plants. New York State is looking toward two or three thousand megawatts of capacity in small hydroelectric plants alone by the mid-1990s.
Improving PURPA would help keep the United States from falling behind as other nations push ahead along these lines. A movement toward decentralized energy in Europe - with use of cogeneration and biomass electricity - is foreseen in the new study, ''Global Insecurity: A Strategy for Energy and Economic Renewal,'' under sponsorship by the Atlantic Institute for International Affairs. There are reports that Sweden has been building 250 small hydro plants to go with its big ones; that New Zealand has 60 and plans to build more; that China gets at least a third of the electricity outside its cities from more than 90,000 local hydro sources.
The pending PURPA amendments are sponsored by Republican Senator Humphrey of New Hampshire and Democratic Representative Ottinger of New York. They address uncertainties about the meaning and enforcement of the law left by a federal appeals court in January. The court challenged regulations to do with the requirements on public utilities in Section 210 of PURPA.
The constitutionality of this section was upheld by the US Supreme Court last month. Questions remain about the interconnection of public utilities with the small alternative sources of power and, in the case of cogeneration, often larger ones such as paper mills; the price to be paid by utilities for the electricity obtained from such sources; and the permissible amount of utility ownership of the alternative sources, the only point on which the Humphrey and Ottinger amendments differ to some extent.
Either amendment would require utilities to hook up with qualified producers (without complicated federal interconnection procedures) and pay ''full avoided cost'' for power from them. This cost is what the utilities would have spent if they added facilities to produce it themselves. Most state commissions already use this cost basis. Either amendment would allow them to reduce it if a different rate is found in the public interest and high enough to meet the act's aim of encouraging small power and cogeneration.
Such legislative steps would avoid a lengthy regulatory process to meet the appeals court's questions. They would help speed the US on that way of the future toward saving resources while producing power.