BARNSVILLE, MD., SEPT. 28 -- Potomac Electric Power Co. officials said they chose Dickerson as the site for two new coal gasification plants because of the need to evenly distribute generating facilities in Pepco's service territory.

"It is extremely important that we build in the northern half of our service territory," Peter H. Benziger, senior vice president of generation, said as Maryland regulators began public hearings on where to build the proposed plant.

Pepco already operates three coal burning generators at Dickerson, the only place north of Washington where Pepco has a plant. Pepco operates several other plants south of Washington.

Pepco officials said the Dickerson location is the cheapest place for new generating facilities. It will cost Pepco $70 million to $185 million less to locate its plant at Dickerson than in Charles County, where Pepco has two other sites.

Last summer Pepco officials asked Maryland regulators to begin licensing for two plants that the company says are needed to meet growing demand for electricity. The plants will cost about $2 billion and will provide 750 megawatts of new generating capacity. Pepco plans to use a new clean-burning generating technology that is said to produce lower emissions and a smaller amount of solid byproducts, and to use less water than a conventional coal plant.

No electric utility has used the technology commercially, but a demonstration plant is running successfully on Southern California Edison's system.

Pepco would install the two plants in stages. Two combustion turbines that burn oil or natural gas would be installed first, then a heat recovery unit would be added to produce steam to run a steam generator. The procedure would be duplicated to add another 375 megawatts of capacity. If oil and gas prices shoot up, the utility plans to add two gasifiers that convert coal to a clean gas.

Benziger said the Dickerson site is ideal for the plants because it is close to rail lines for fuel transportation and because it already has electrical transmission lines.

Jack R. Templeton, Pepco manager of energy planning, also said locating the plants at Dickerson evenly distributes generating capacity and minimizes the probability of "cascading outages" or brownouts if there is a disruption along transmission lines elsewhere on the system. Pepco is working on a 240-mile transmission loop line through 12 counties in Virginia and Maryland to upgrade transmission capabilities. The project is being undertaken with several other utilities.

Residents of the Dickerson area expressed concern about Pepco's new plant and Montgomery County's plans for a $170 million trash-to-energy incinerator slated to be built on Pepco's Dickerson site.

"What that facility will do to the air quality and the combined impact of the facilities and the incinerator, nobody has considered that impact," said Kevin McCrea, an area landowner. "There will also be tremendous shock to the rural character."

Bev Thoms, a local resident and member of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, said, "We don't have a chance. Pepco has the money and they'll win it." The Dickerson site is the worst of all sites considered for a plant from an environmental point of view, she said. "We're trapped...we'll have all this crap in our food."