Turn It On

ONCE UPON A TIME, Harvard had a brilliant idea. Forecasting increases in energy prices and decreases in supply, the University decided to build the Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP). MATEP, designed to provide energy to the medical schools and Harvard's affiliated teaching hospitals, would be the largest co-generation plant in America. On paper, it looked great--steam chilled water and heat all from the same diesel engines, and $2 million in annual savings.

If Harvard's concern for its energy future was farsighted, however, its failure to recognize the plant's potential impact on the community was inexcusable. The University ploughed ahead with its plans, advancing huge sums of money for its pet project. Harvard had to know that its diesel engines would produce nitrogen dioxides--said to be harmful to human and animal health in certain doses--but it sidestepped the problem. When community groups in the Mission Hill area broached the subject, the University blanched--and hired teams of experts to do air pollution impact studies.

But all the piles of facts and figures power plant officials and witnesses mustered to the defense proved ineffective. When a state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) hearing officer said MATEP could not install its diesels, the University was stuck with a white elephant and increasing town-gown tensions. Confused, frustrated--some might even say desperate--MATEP asked the DEQE to let the diesels be installed. The DEQE did not respond at first. Only recently, when a DEQE official recommended that the plant's diese's be installed could Harvard breathe a little easier.

It is time that everybody involved--the community, the DEQE and MATEP--find out just what the power plant's impact on the community will be. All the computer-generated studies in the world mean nothing; the plant must be tested under actual operating conditions. DEQE Deputy Commissioner David Fierra, who will make the final decision on the plant, must stop finding excuses to delay his decision and give MATEP the go-ahead.

But the community's interest cannot be disregarded. Community leaders' most deep-seated fear is that once the diesels go in, they will keep running, no matter now much nitrogen dioxide comes out. The recommendations call for close monitoring of the plant's emissions, a state mandate to turn the diesels off if emission levels are exceeded and a backup utility contract to protect the schools and hospitals from an energy blackout in case the diesels are shut off. The state, at all costs, can not acquiesce to MATEP's pleas for leniency. If the diesels exceed levels the DEQE has determined to be safe, the diesels must be shut down.

ALL THIS FRANTIC RUMBLING, of course, may be moot. Boston Edison must build still a $10-$15 million stepdown station to accomodate MATEP's backup requirement. If it refuses to do so, Harvard is left with a multimillion dollar conversation piece. Even if Edison comes through, MATEP will have to spend about $1 million a year to buy power it may never use, which might make the power plant cost inefficient."

If Fierra rules against the plant, Harvard will no doubt go running to the nearest courthouse. While they run, however, they ought to do some very hard thinking--about their failures to plan ahead and their continuing failures to establish good community relations. If MATEP is a very large mistake, it is only sumbolic of a continuing trend.