Policy Gridlock Extends Water-Cooled Plants’ Life

By Published On: December 4, 2009

A continuing turf battle between state water regulators and the grid operator over the future of once-through water cooled coastal power plants delayed adoption of a state policy to phase-out the aging units that harm marine life. Which agency should be in charge of shutting down water-consuming power plants--the State Water Resources Control Board or California Independent System Operator--is the crux of the debate. Southern California Edison, Los Angles Department of Water & Power, Pacific Gas & Electric, some generators, and CAISO, assert the board’s proposal to gradually retrofit or shut down and replace the state’s 19 water-cooled plants, which represent 20,000 MW of generating capacity, threatens grid reliability. They voiced their concerns at a December 1 water board hearing. “You are taking on responsibility for supply reliability,” Mike Hertell, Edison vice president, told the water board. “You are suggesting that all due dates be unenforceable targets,” Tam Doduc, water board member, countered. Staff said it doesn’t expect to bring the latest round of policy revisions following Tuesday’s meeting back to the board before February 2010. The board initially hoped to adopt a policy this year. Board staff noted once-through power plant cooling harms marine life much more than any other activity regulated by the state and regional water boards. For years, the Energy Commission has called for phasing out plants that use large quantities of coastal and estuarine water for cooling turbines because of the technology’s significant harm to fish and other aquatic wildlife. According to water board data, water-cooled plants caused the death of 57 large marine mammals, including seals, sea lions and sea turtles, last year. In addition, data indicate power plant cooling intakes statewide kill 2.6 million fish and 19 billion fish larvae annually. “The handwriting is on the wall for these plants,” said Mike Jaske, Energy Commission senior policy analyst. He added that the focus of his agency and the water board has and continues to be the “vast reduction or elimination of the once-through cooled plants in a reliable way.” California has 19 power plants that consume and expel 15 billion gallons of water a day, impacting the marine environment, according to the state board. For example, the water-cooled power plants in the Delta killed 26,000 Delta Smelt--a tiny fish threatened with extinction that is at the heart of the battle over water export restrictions from the San Francisco Bay to farms and Southern California cities. After months of delay, the water board quietly issued a draft policy at the end of June on once-through cooled plants and set compliance deadlines for plants to significantly reduce the amount of water used. There is no national rule regulating the intakes of existing once-through cooled power plants, though the practice has been the subject of extensive litigation. Several California plants’ wastewater discharge permits have expired and other plants are operating under short-term renewals. The water board’s proposed policy sets out two alternative compliance tracks. They require the once-through cooled plants to use “best technology available,” such as closed loop cooling towers, to reduce the inflow within set time frames. Track one requires all units of a facility to slash their coastal water intake by 93 percent. Track two covers plants that prove it is infeasible to meet the first track. That includes the state’s two operating nuclear plants--which are allowed to take in 4.5 billion gallons/day. It also would cover recently re-powered combined-cycle fossil fueled plants, requiring them to cut inflows to within 10 percent of the 93 percent inflow reductions specified in track one. The policy would require power plants to keep ocean critters away from their intakes. It also mandates that when not producing power for the grid, generating units should significantly curb their intake flows. Under the water board’s once though cooling phase-out or retrofit schedule, Pacific Gas & Electric has until the end of 2024 to overhaul its Diablo nuclear plant, which could include installing cooling towers. The initial compliance date was 2020. It was extended to reflect the current expiration date of its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license, for which it is seeking a 20-year extension (see story at page 5.) The water board concluded that the impacts of the 2,240 MW PG&E nuke affects 93 square miles of marine environment. It also found the nuke was responsible for 10.8 percent of the deaths of fish larvae of rockfish species, noting up to 593 acres would be needed to be set aside for mitigation. For decades, state water agencies have been concerned over Diablo’s water use and its expelled wastewater’s scouring of the marine area bordering the plant. Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuke is supposed to meet the new rules via a rehabilitation or substitute power by 2022. SONGS is allowed to ingest and expel 2 billions gallons a seawater a day. The compliance schedule for the other once-through cooled plants is as follows: -Humboldt Bay and Potrero plants are to meet the inflow reduction mandate within a year of the policy implementation. -South Bay has until the end of 2012. -El Segundo, Morro Bay units, and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s Haynes facility have until December 2015 to comply. -Encina, Contra Costa, Pittsburg, Moss Landing, and LADWP’s Harbor and Scattergood plants have until the end of 2017. -Huntington Beach, Redondo, Alamitos, Mandalay, and Ormond Beach have until December 31, 2020. The once through cooling plan creates a multi-agency advisory committee that will review the policy after its first year of implementation and then every two years. The board also agrees to reconsider its compliance dates for facilities if the grid operator or another energy agency raise supply reliability concerns. Issues that remain unresolved include the availability of air pollution credits from the South Coast Air Quality Management District for new power plants or existing plant repowers. Also in flux is to what extent system needs for various operating characteristics can be satisfied with preferred generating technologies.

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