Energy needs of 1990s join list of 1988's election issues

DEMOCRATIC presidential candidate Michael Dukakis has another home-grown problem in addition to the state budget. Massachusetts is struggling with an electrical power shortage. On one hot day this month, Boston City Hall shut down early to save power. Four downtown office towers, responding to a request from Boston Edison, also sent their workers home shortly after noon.

Many in the state's power industry blame the governor for this problem because of his opposition to opening of the Seabrook nuclear plant across the border in New Hampshire, and to the reopening of the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth. If both of these power plants were operating, the power shortage would disappear, at least for a while.

Mr. Dukakis's staff says the governor is not anti-nuclear power per se. He is only against these specific plants because of special problems. There is not an adequate evacuation plan for Seabrook, he contends, and the Pilgrim plant has been badly managed.

But questions are now being raised about the governor's own role in the management of New England's power supplies.

``I would be concerned about the situation,'' says Donald Martin of the Foundation for Economic Research. ``It doesn't seem to be getting better.'' A year ago, his organization published a report entitled ``Will the lights go out in New England?''

Mr. Martin wonders whether Dukakis is ``trying to have his cake and eat it'' - that is, please the antinuclear people and yet not be fully antinuclear.

Nor, he says, has the governor expressed his clear opposition to a November referendum to permanently close the state's two nuclear plants (Pilgrim and the Yankee atomic power plant in Rowe).

Concern about power adequacy goes beyond New England. With electricity becoming mostly cheaper in real terms (after inflation) in recent years, power consumption in the nation has grown at a 4.5 to 5 percent compounded annual rate, even faster in New England.

As a result, the excess capacity of the 1970s and '80s in much of the United States could disappear in the early 1990s. Frank Lennox, a consultant with Science Concepts Inc. in Washington, predicts power shortages along the East Coast, the upper Northwest, and in some parts of the South and the Southeast.

Many utilities now figure on conservation or ``least-cost planning'' to prevent brownouts or worse. They hope to avoid construction of expensive and controversial major power plants with smaller facilities, cogeneration, or other techniques.

``That illusion will evaporate,'' Mr. Lennox says. ``It could happen quite quickly.''

Lennox has calculated the additional power needs of the nation, assuming a 3 percent growth rate in demand, to 1996. Then he has reckoned how conservation or other measures might satisfy that demand.

His calculations have led him to the conclusion that aggressive conservation measures and energy-efficient appliances will not be enough, that the nation is going to need major power plants - say, 150 nuclear facilities producing 1,100 megawatts each or 330 coal-fired plants generating 500 MW each.

But with the growing suspicion that the greenhouse effect may already have started to warm the earth, the public could become more reluctant to see additional fossil fuel plants built.

Politicians may have to lead the country back to an acceptance of nuclear power, perhaps utilizing new, even-safer designs now on the drawing boards.

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