THE ELECTRIC UTILITIES have a demonstrated ability to make their own troubles worse. The last time you heard from them, they were plaintively explaining the dire financial strains on them, as they struggled to meet the nation's rapidly rising demands for power. But in the last several years, those demands for additional power have sharply slackened. Now the electric companies are loudly complaining that energy conservation and low economic growth threaten power shortages in the 1980s.
Power shortages resulting from too much conservation? Well, that's what the electric companies say. It is the industry's style and tradition to express itself in terms that most of its customers consider ludicrous.
But there is a grain of substance hidden under the rhetoric of this latest outburst. If, like ourselves, you would not welcome the prospect of a summer in Washington without air conditioning, you would agree that an adequate power supply is not a trivial matter. The authoritative version of the industry's current outcry is found in a brief highly polemic preface to the otherwise perfectly straightforward annual report of the National Electric Reliability Council, which is made up of the nation's power producers. The Edison Electric Institute, the trade association of the privately owned power companies, has published an abridged version in newspaper advertisements thoughout the country.
The industry is saying that it is steadily reducing its own best estimates of the country's need for power in the late 1980s. But, it warns, this reduced program of construction will not be able to meet any sudden surges of demand if trends should suddenly change. The people who run the power industry are accustomed to the flexibility provided by rapid expansion, and some of that flexibility is now being lost.
There are two principal reasons for the current slowdown. American industries have made great gains in energy conservation. Beyond that, industrial production is not growing as fast now as it did before the 1973 oil crisis. Nobody knows how far industrial conservation will go, how long the present phase of relatively slow economic growth will last. The Reliability Council points out, correctly, that a new manufacturing plant can be constructed much faster than the generating plant to produce the power for it. The utilities worry that generators to be built for the next decade will not go into operation on schedule, because of quarrels over federal regulation. That's a legitimate concern.
But the industry, as usual, complains indiscriminately about all the new rules that make it harder to build and fuel new generators - the environmental laws, the coal-mine safety regulations, the long dispute over disposal of nuclear reactors' wastes. The power companies seem to have missed the point. There has been a shift of responsibility from them to public authorities. It is now fairly well established, for example, that the true costs of burning coal in generators ought to be carried by the people who use the electricity - not by miners in unsafe mines, and not by people breathing the toxic pollution of uncontrolled coal smoke. The health hazards of unregulated power production are real. It would be welcome if the utilities were to acknowledge that truth occasionally, rather than treating all environmental law as a mere invention of bureaucrats and socialists to harass hard-working businessmen.
The Reliability Council, speaking for the industry, says that there is a rising risk of power shortages in the 1980s. But the risk is remote, as the industry's own figures show, while the benefits of environmental controls are actual and substantial. The industry says that if a shortage develops it will be the fault of all the new federal health and safety standards. Fair enough. The world is full of risks, and it's necessary to choose among them. Power shortages are not a happy prospect, but they are preferable to the certain consequences of leaving the standards for power plants wholly to the power industry.