JUICE: Double Standard?

By Published On: December 12, 2013

The State Water Resources Control Board wants to end once-through cooling with seawater at 19 power plants that dot California’s shoreline, but at the same time facilitate use of ocean water in desalination plants. Some in the water industry want to use the ocean water intakes power plants have relied on for decades to turn seawater into drinking water. Jesus Arredondo, principal at Advantage Consulting, which works with the energy industry, observes that using ocean water in desalination plant raises all the same marine life impact issues that using it to cool power plants does. Ironically, the number of desalination plants under discussion or development equals the number of power plants that have to phase out use of ocean water for cooling under the board’s policy, according to the Pacific Institute. In Carlsbad, Huntington Beach, and at Moss Landing the desalination projects are co-located with the today’s power plants. In response to the projects, the board is devising a new marine protection policy for ocean water desalination that would allow seawater to continue to be pulled into plants, but for another cause. Based on recommendations earlier this year by an expert panel, the state water board is eyeing undersurface water intake “galleries” that minimize marine life impacts. The galleries consist of large trenches packed with rock, gravel, and other porous material over an intake pipe. They slow the flow of water into the intake pipe by drawing it in over a large area and thereby eliminate marine life from being sucked up. In an exception, though, the policy would allow fine screens on existing intakes, along with lower intake velocity, if it was the only “feasible” alternative. The board is still writing the proposed policy and doing the environmental analysis, according to agency environmental scientist Shuka Rastegarpour. But, the direction is evident. “It’s very site specific,” explained Rastegarpour of the upcoming policy. “They have to evaluate it.” Desalination plant developers could justify pulling in seawater and using fine screens on conventional intakes to avoid the much more expensive undersurface galleries, depending upon how the board defines “feasible.” The policy is due next year, according to Rastegarpour. Pacific Institute water program co-director Heather Cooley maintains that the main place an exception might be justifiable is in an area where the ocean bottom is rocky. In general, she said, sandy bottom areas work well for undersurface galleries. While the water industry watches closely as the policy is developed, one desalination project developer, Poseidon, already is angling to use the possible loophole it to its advantage. It’s already building a 50 million gallon/day desalination plant next to an old NRG power plant in Carlsbad. There, the state is letting it use the existing power plant intake structure to draw in ocean water. At the same time, a new power plant with dry cooling is going up next door. Poseidon got permits for Carlsbad from various state agencies in the absence of any specific marine life protection policy for desalination. Under its permits, though, it must mitigate the impacts on marine life by restoring habitat to create breeding grounds for fish and other ocean life. Last month the Coastal Commission—one of the agencies that permitted use of the existing intake structure in Carlsbad—effectively asked Poseidon to weigh building an undersurface intake gallery at a project it’s planning next to another power plant—the old AES facility in Huntington Beach. Poseidon vice president Scott Maloni is hopeful the State Water Board’s policy will allow fine screen on the existing power plant intake instead of building a $275 million, 60-acre undersurface gallery. That financial requirement could be the death knell for the project, particularly since the price of desalinated water at $2,000+/acre-foot greatly exceeds other options for new water resources, such as recycling and efficiency. Maloni emphasizes that because Poseidon would use only a quarter of the 500 million gallons/day of water AES is permitted to use, it already would lessen marine impacts. It not only will draw less sea life into its plant, but using less water, he explains, will slow the flow of water so fewer fish are crushed to death up against the intake screen. Poseidon is undertaking a study for its Huntington Beach project to compare the fine screen versus undersurface intake options. It plans to seek Coastal Commission approval sometime next year, the vice president said. Depending upon the specifics of the board’s policy, Poseidon’s study could wind up showing an intake gallery is infeasible and that a fine screen is the only feasible alternative. That could set a precedent for other desalination plants, meaning that ocean water withdrawals and marine life impacts would continue with screened intake pipes. Coastal Commission environmental scientist Tom Luster says that just as power plant operators have done in the past the impacts could be mitigated by constructing artificial habitats, like new wetlands, to serve as breeding grounds for marine life replacement. Granted, withdrawals would be smaller than today and impacts would be reduced, but still the state would fall short of its apparent goal of preventing major uses of ocean water for industrial purposes to protect marine life. It looks like an emerging double standard.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now