BOSTON — NEW ENGLAND has led the nation in electricity demand over the past five years, and another summer of possible power shortages is on the way. But New Englanders don't have to reach for that extra glass of lemonade - yet. Utility industry officials here say that - on paper, at least - the region is better prepared for the coming summer months than in any of the previous five years, even while utility companies anticipate record usage of up to 20,000 megawatts.
``We aren't warning about voltage reductions because we don't expect it at this point,'' says William Sheperdson of the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), a consortium of the region's utilities.
Last summer's grueling heat (12 days in a row of more than 90 degrees) led to ``brownouts,'' or voltage reductions of about 5 percent, 10 times in New England. This year utilities say they have speeded up seasonal maintenance on plants, which will result in more than 220 megawatts available by the ``peak exposure'' period of mid-July to mid-August that was not available last year.
``Just keeping to maintenance targets gives the region the equivalent of another power plant the size of Seabrook [nuclear],'' says Alan Nogee of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG). That's about 1,150 megawatts.
Still, utilities expect to barely get past summer. Promised power from New York and Canada may or may not come through - depending on the weather.
Beyond that, the region's real problems are not short term, but long term. New England's power usage has risen steadily since 1982. Usage increased from an 18,058-megawatt peak in the summer of '87, to 19,500 in '88 - an increase in one year larger than the entire potential power output of New Hampshire's Seabrook plant.
Most of the increase is tied to the commercial result of the Massachusetts economic ``miracle''; that is, the power demands of new office buildings, shopping centers, and public-works projects - as well as new electronics-based industries, and the increased power needs of old buildings turned into condominiums.
The region, with its unusual summer and winter peaks in electricity demand, its controversy over the use of nuclear energy, and its impending power needs, has become a national battleground for energy policy and use.
Currently, the region utilizes three types of plants: base loading - main power sources that run all the time; intermediate - coal or gas-fired plants turned on during June, July, and August; and ``peaking'' - oil-fired plants that are turned on quickly, at great expense, during emergencies. In recent years, even peaking plants have had to run full time during winter and summer.
Several more base-loading plants are needed, along with other alternative electricity sources, according to a 1988 Federal Reserve Bank study. Only one such plant, however, is even near the drawing board. Why? Some critics say utility companies are ``sitting on their hands'' - trying to force nuclear plants on line through sheer necessity. (Two weeks ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the Seabrook plant a low-power license, another step toward going to full power. The status of Pilgrim, the region's other major nuclear plant, in Plymouth, Mass., is uncertain.)
Others say a climate of overregulation in Massachusetts has made utilities reluctant to build base-loading plants. They take 10 years to finish, with no sure return on investment.
The possibility of a state licensing process called ``all resource bidding'' - where the utility has to prove a new plant is the cheapest possible alternative before building - is an example.
One bright sign on the horizon is private, ``independent power producers'' coming into the breech to sell electricity. Ocean State Power in Rhode Island is building a 110-megawatt gas-fired plant that utilities have already contracted with. General Electric is building a plant in Pittsfield, Mass. MassPIRG's Mr. Nogee suggests a 9,000-megawatt capability in such alternative sources.
Between 1990 and 2000 the region will also buy some 1,500 megawatts a year from Hydro-Qu'ebec in Canada, assuming the water table in the region recovers from its recent low levels.