Northwest, once energy-rich, now talking conservation

Here in western Washington, some people's monthly electric bills are higher than their mortgage payments. Robert Olsen, who lives in the town of Elma, keeps his costs down by heating his house with a wood stove and his water with a coil inside the stove.

''But my electricity bills are as high now as when I used electric heat and hot water,'' says Mr. Olsen. His rates shot up 500 percent in the past few years.

Until then, the only thought most Pacific Northwesterners like Olsen gave to electric power was flipping on the light switch and paying the bill each month. The Northwest has been renowned for its abundance of cheap power, and most homes here are heated by electricity ''because we were always taught it was cheap,'' says high-school teacher Gordon Rosier of Edmonds, Wash.

A $2.25 billion nuclear power plant mistake helped to change all that.

Because Washington State decided in January 1982 to abandon two partly built plants (see accompanying story), and to continue building three other nuclear plants that face enormous cost overruns, ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest may face even higher monthly electric bills.

It hasn't been decided yet whether the cost of abandoning construction of the two thermal plants will be paid for by higher electricity rates or by defaulting on government bonds. But Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana are cooperating on a plan to head off any future fiascos.

In the aftermath of that expensive error, the region is turning its back on coal and nuclear power for now. Led by a four-state energy alliance, the area is embracing conservation and renewable resources (solar and hydroelectric) as the main ways to bolster power supplies for the rest of the century.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, headed by former Washington Gov. Dan Evans, is mapping out the energy needs and resources of the Northwest for the next 20 years. A plan adopted by the group lists coal and nuclear power plants as last resorts.

''It's a great experiment in regional energy planning,'' says Mr. Evans. ''We're plowing new ground, and it's all part of the transformation of public power planning in the Northwest.''

But the two Oregon representatives on the council voted against the plan, warning that conservation measures and energy costs in the 20-year plan could cost $60 billion. The plan calls for complete ratepayer subsidy of weatherization on all rental units and homes owned by low-income families, while those earning would pay for part of their own weatherization. Oregon representative Roy Hemmingway says he favors a more ''graduated'' approach to weatherization subsidy.

In 1980, Congress passed a law requiring the region to organize cooperative power planning so the federal government wouldn't have to referee disputes. The Northwest was starting to fight over ever more expensive electric power.

The Northwest Power Planning Council gets good reviews from other Northwest citizens, mostly because Evans and the other seven members (two appointed by governors of each of the four states) keep the council's work wide open to the public, says Steve Zemke, chairman of the Don't Bankrupt Washington Committee.

As governor here in 1976, Evans approved construction on all five nuclear plants at once. Now, as council chief, he seems determined not to repeat such mistakes.

''We are planning for uncertainty,'' says Evans. The council is allowing for the possibility of either fast- or slow-paced economic growth, a big factor in determining how much electricity will be needed. Planning for different growth rates, plus the use of other alternative energy resources, will give the Northwest ''the flexibility for an admittedly unknown future,'' says Evans. ''The idea is not to do anything until we need to.''

The Northwest economy has slowed almost to a stop because of the sagging timber industry; only six years ago, experts were forecasting 7 percent growth a year. Within the council's 20-year blueprint are shorter work plans revised every two years.

''We are witnessing a revolution of what our energy resources are going to be: We're going to meet almost our entire (electric) load need with conservation and small hydro,'' says Mark Reis, executive director of a citizen's group called the Northwest Conservation Act Coalition.

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