Plugging in to Quebec

This week's historic hydroelectric agreement between Quebec and a pool of 64 New England power companies holds high promise in several ways:

* It is an example of using fat years to prepare for lean ones. Right now oil is plentiful. But it is not inexhaustible, and prudence dictates reduced long-term reliance on it. Under the new pact, similar to one between Quebec and New York State, New England will receive enough relatively cheap electricity from Quebec's huge new hydropower facility to save more than 5 million barrels of oil a year. According to projections of cost and demand, the financial savings will be more than $100 million in 1987 and close to $350 million by 1995 . Deals for further electricity from Canada are already being discussed.

* The agreement also indicates the kind of mutually beneficial international cooperation needed for efficient use of the planet's energy resources. The Quebec-New England package had to overcome obstacles involving such matters as transmission line siting, internal Canadian controversies, and some US doubts about overreliance on imported power. Its achievement should not be lost in the headlines of US-Canadian tensions over trade, fishing, or acid rain. Here was a triumph for common sense, as Vermont's Governor Snelling said. Quebec will be able to sell vast quantities of electricity it doesn't need, and New England will be able to meet its needs less expensively.

* Another promising element is the attention drawn to hydroelectricity as an alternative to oil, coal, and nuclear power. It is not practical to harness all the globe's energy in the water flowing into the sea - the equivalent of 73,000 trillion watt-hours a year. But the World Energy Conference has estimated that capturing 19,000 trillion watt-hours would be technically feasible from dams with the combined capacity of more than 2,200 large (1,000 megawatt) coal or nuclear plants. Thus total hydro production could become four to six times what it is now.

Large dams are seen as potential causes of environmental harm if not painstakingly thought out. But hydro does not have the drawbacks of fossil fuel pollution or nuclear waste or accident. And there remains great potential in the small dams that can serve local needs and sometimes feed into larger company grids.

A number of such stations, idled during the years of cheap oil, are being reactivated in New England. One utility company intends to restore enough hydro to reduce reliance on oil from more than 40 percent to only 10 percent of its energy needs.

To take but one example elsewhere in the world, China has built some 90,000 small hydro stations since the late '60s. As proponents of hydro rightly note, it is a form of energy that gives to the future rather than takes from it. Instead of burning oil and thus leaving less energy supply for the next generation, every new hydro unit adds to the future supply.

Kudos to Quebec and New England for looking to the future together.

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