Meeting US electricity demand in the '90s

To hear utilities tell it, a predicted shortage of power plants might make the 1990s an era of brownouts and service interruptions. But a veritable smorgasbord of new technologies could help meet future US electricity demand, according to a report released Wednesday by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The study says that a partnership between utilities, public utility commissions, and the federal government could hasten commercial use of these technologies.

The techniques considered in the OTA report include solar-generated heat or electricity, wind-driven generators and geothermal power stations, new types of batteries, and coal-fired generators that burn more cleanly and efficiently than the boilers of old. They also include new techniques to manage demand.

But a large question is whether these innovations will be available soon enough to significantly fill the predicted shortfall between demand and capacity in the 1990s. Probably not, decides the OTA.

For one thing, highly developed processes, such as the coal technologies, would consume large amounts of time and money on their journey from drawing board to finished plant. Other technologies may still have a few bugs that need to be ironed out to the satisfaction of utility decisionmakers.

And there are other reasons for delays in adopting the innovations: ``Utility decisionmakers are now very cautious about new technology,'' the report says.

Instead, utilities would attempt to meet increased demand with conventional power plants. The report notes that electric utilities have taken steps to increase their flexibility in planning for increased electricty demand. Among the steps, for example, are environmental and efficiency improvements to conventional power generation, extending the lifespan of existing power plants, and purchasing power from smaller, independent sources.

By depending mostly on the construction of new conventional power plants, however, utilities may face serious problems in meeting demand. The financial, regulatory, and public pressures experienced by many utilities, particularly those building nuclear power plants, could discourage adequate investment in conventional plants, the report says, and cause projects to drag out needlessly.

In order to spur use of the new technologies, the OTA report suggests that several advanced commercial demonstration projects should be undertaken. Paid for by industry and government, and managed by utilities, the projects would provide new technologies with a trial run.

The report also urges tax breaks for utilities undertaking long-term, higher-risk development projects of so-called renewable sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. It also urges public utilities to spend more on research and development. The report suggests that projects could be financed with an equity contribution from the utiltity and the remainder through rate-payer loans granted by public-utility commissions, possibly guaranteed by the government.

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