Booming Northeast examines ways to avoid energy shortfall. Region debates big power plants vs. conservation

New England, with its robust economy, will have heavy energy demands in the future. All the Northeast states agree on that.

But how can the region get that power at the least possible cost? That's what a report recently presented to the New England Governors' Conference asks. It's the first step in a cooperative plan for the region's energy future.

At the heart of the issue is the definition of ``least-cost.''

To the presenters of the report, the New England Power Pool, least-cost means large power plants. NEPOOL is an association of electricity companies. This is the approach that has been taken by the industry for many years.

To the governors of Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont, and to environmental groups, least-cost means conservation at home and in the workplace: energy-efficient motors, lighting, appliances, and insulation. Power obtained this way may cost only half as much as energy from a new power plant, says Armond Cohen, staff lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation of New England Inc. (CLF), a nonprofit environmental group that looks at energy concerns.

The NEPOOL report forecasts an energy shortfall as early as 1995, rising to 2,500 to 11,000 megawatts through the year 2000, depending on whether a high-growth scenario is chosen. (NEPOOL currently has a capacity of more than 22,000 megawatts.) To the utility companies, the need is urgent. Large power plants must have a lead time of eight years to plan, build, and bring online.

Frank Haley, a spokesman for New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, says the governor believes either scenario supports his case that every bit of new energy is needed, including the one completed reactor at Seabrook. (A planned second reactor has been abandoned.) The 1,150-megawatt nuclear plant has been stalled by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis's refusal to draw up emergency plans for nearby Bay State towns.

Governor Dukakis disagrees with Governor Sununu's conclusion about the report, says Gillian Gansler, a spokes-woman for the Bay State's energy office. The NEPOOL report, she says, vastly understates power available from higher efficiencies of the system, peak-load management, and cogeneration. This energy can be brought online within a year or two, replacing the need for new large plants through the year 2000, she adds.

Dukakis has not changed his mind about Seabrook, Ms. Gansler says. He still feels that New England can get along without the nuclear safety worries that he says Seabrook presents.

This latest debate is just one in a long series between the two governors over Seabrook. So far, Dukakis has managed to stall the licensing, as well as the critical testing, processes. Critics of Seabrook have urged refitting the plant to run on oil or coal. This will be nearly impossible once Seabrook is tested at full-power, as nuclear decontamination procedures would be prohibitively expensive.

But now Sununu forces are trying an end run around Dukakis. Seabrook owners recently asked for permission to shrink their evacuation zone to one mile. This would exclude the Massachusetts towns and make a Dukakis evacuation plan unnecessary.

NEPOOL's energy report, which each side in the Dukakis-Sununu debate interprets differently, has not impressed everyone with its accuracy.

And Mr. Cohen points out that the report lists only 419 megawatts of small-power production to be available by 2000. At the same time Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), which owns the lion's share of Seabrook, recently paid small power producers $1.25 million to cancel or postpone small-power production projects that would have provided about 500 megawatts, says Sarah P. Voll, chief economist of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

Critics say PSNH wants to protect its market for expensive Seabrook power, which some estimate may cost as much as two or three times the current cost of electricity in New England. Perhaps because of this concern, Sununu objected to Central Maine Power's proposal to sell power to southern New England states from a deal now being negotiated with Canada's Hydro-Quebec II.

To form an effective regional plan that would avoid energy disputes like this, Cohen advocates establishing a public energy-planning group. It would involve all concerned - utilities, law-makers, and citizens - in the regional energy-planning process.

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