Virginia Power recently signed contracts with non-utility suppliers to build as many as 12 coal-burning plants. The utility cited its 7 percent a year increase in electricity demand since 1984 -- twice the rate of the state's population growth -- as a reason for needing the new plants. Virginia Power expects a 50 percent increase in demand for electricity by the year 2000, and as a result, company officials said it would need to be provide an extra 6 million kilowatts of electrical production by the turn of the century.

Citing threats to the health of Shenandoah National Park, the National Park Service told Virginia's Department of Air Pollution Control that it objected to the plan to construct these new coal-fired power plants. But despite compelling arguments, the state agency rejected the park services' position, setting the stage for protracted legal wrangling.

Virginia Power now generates nearly half of its electricity from coal. About a third is produced by the Surry and North Anna nuclear plants, and a quarter is purchased from other utilities. Considering high capital costs and the national mistrust of nuclear power, it is unlikely the company could augment its power production by adding to its nuclear capacity. Thus in the utility management's shortsighted view, Virginia Power has little choice but to add coal-fired capacity.

But building additional coal-burning power plants can only exacerbate Virginia's worsening acid rain problem. It also is likely to generate millions of tons of toxic waste in the form of coal ash, increasing the probability of groundwater contamination.

Even more ominous in its implications for environmental degradation would be the production of additional carbon dioxide, which cannot be removed from the atmosphere by any available technology. This "greenhouse" gas is generally believed to be a major cause of global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences.

Global environmental mandates dictate the need to stabilize or reduce carbon dioxide emissions by, among other things, replacing fossil-fuel plants. Realistic solutions to this dilemma exist and should be explored before any decision to build more coal-fired plants is made.

Some important considerations include:

Conservation. The fact that electricity demand is growing twice as fast as population suggests that considerable electricity could be made available through conservation, eliminating the immediate need for new plants. Saving energy through conservation is cheaper than building new power plants, regardless of type.

Innovative partnerships. Utilities and large users, like colleges, governments, commercial establishments and industry, could devise means to significantly reduce consumption. For example, grants by utilities to colleges for equipment that results in demand reduction could be added to the company's rate base. Colleges, like other large public-sector energy consumers, are rarely internally motivated to conserve energy.

Tapping Renewable Resources. Research supports the feasibility of renewable sources, like solar and geothermal energy, to directly heat water without going through the step of producing electricity. The time has clearly come to begin large-scale application of these methods, especially by Dominion Resources Inc., the parent company of Virginia Power, which through its Dominion Energy subsidiary, is involved in solar and geothermal projects outside Virginia.

Alternative Technologies. Producing electricity from wind, wave and solar energy could be feasible for the company's service area and should be exhaustively considered before commiting to additional fossil-fuel plants. Although these methods are widely claimed to be more expensive than conventional production methods, much of the additional cost can be recovered in increased air and water quality. National health costs of air and water pollution run into billions of dollars each year. Damage to crops, forests and lakes from acid rain may involve similar sums. And Shenandoah Park is irreplaceable.

Waste Production. Reducing coal mining and the need for expensive and usually leaky landfills in which to dump millions of tons of toxic coal waste will further reduce costs that now have to be borne by an unwilling society.

Rebates. The Virginia Corporation Commission should rescind regulations prohibiting Virginia Power from offering rebates to customers who purchase and operate energy-efficient appliances.

A threat to the health of a national treasure such as Shenandoah National Park demands action. Virginia Power, the state government and concerned citizens must work together to create a sustainable future based on renewables, conservation and a new respect for the global environment. -- Robert McConnell is an associate professor of geology at Mary Washington College in Fredicksburg.