State Aims at Coastal Plants to Save Marine Life

By Published On: May 16, 2008

The state appears ready to crack down on power plants that use once-through water cooling. The State Water Resources Control Board May 13 renewed its efforts to make way for dramatically tightened controls on the once-through cooled plants. It held a scoping meeting with industry and environmentalists to initiate a public process to that end. The renewed process is an outcome of a January 2007 decision by the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Second Circuit that upheld federal Clean Water Act provisions, which aim to mitigate the aquatic ecosystem impacts of water-cooled power plants. Environmentalists see the renewed public process as an opportunity to enhance energy efficiency and protect marine life, according to Angela Haren, California Coastkeeper Alliance project director. “It’s been 35 years since the Clean Water Act” was implemented, she said. Environmentalists in the process want the Act’s provisions to be enforced. The plants targeted use about 16 billion gallons a day of water drawn from the sea and fresh bodies of water to cool down the electricity production process, according to state documents. The intakes on the plants ingest and kill fish and other marine life. The outfall from the process heats up the local marine environment, sometimes to the point of “scouring” wetlands of life, according to the state. Industry representatives, however, say the state is moving too fast. The state could shut down power plants, according to documents. But, it is presently pursuing engineering solutions to prevent marine deaths and reduce the amount of water intakes. One option is for the state to set a best technology available standard and apply it on a case-by-case basis. Neither side expects a power plant to be decommissioned anytime soon. A survey of 15 California coastal power plants that use seawater for cooling shows that 12 could be retrofitted with closed-loop systems to eliminate marine impacts, according to the state board, which is developing the new cooling standard under the federal Clean Water Act. Three–located at El Segundo operated by NRG, Redondo Beach operated by AES, and Ormond Beach operated by Reliant–would have trouble retrofitting, the board said. The agency added, however, it would be possible for the state’s two nuclear plants to meet its standard. It also raised the prospect that plants that could not use closed-loop systems could rebuild their water intakes to achieve sufficient marine protections. The state’s two largest investor-owned utilities have the most plants on contract or in ownership that could be affected. According to all involved, replacement power is dear. Southern California Edison filed documents with federal regulators noting that it expects to need about 7,000 MW of new capacity by 2015, partly due to shutdowns of power plants that suck in coastal water to cool spinning turbines. Pacific Gas & Electric expects to need up to 1,200 MW on top of its current contracts for 1,870 MW of renewable resources and 2,700 MW of fossil plants. The amount of new power the two utilities project they will need assumes both of their nuclear plants will remain on line. Overall, the state grid operator expects 20,000 MW of capacity to be retired, although the California Independent System Operator did not have a time frame for those shutdowns. Edison is banking on retirement by 2015 of 4,800 MW of aging generating capacity in its service territory, said Gary Stern, company director of resource planning. At the same time, the utility expects demand to rise by 2,900 MW, he said. In a bid to keep coastal plants operating, some operators are repowering their facilities, decreasing water intake and increasing fish protection in the process. For instance, NRG Energy’s El Segundo plant is expected to use less fossil fuel and use air instead of water condensers for its cooling systems, according to Jesus Arredondo, NRG director of regulatory affairs. PG&E–which bought a nascent power plant from Mirant, then called Contra Costa 8 and now dubbed Gateway–plans to use dry cooling for the new 530 MW facility, according to the utility. That plant is 60 percent complete, said spokesperson Darlene Chiu. It is expected to go on line in February 2009. During deregulation in the mid-1990s, utilities were required to divest their fossil fuel plants. Now most of the power from those sold facilities is contracted back to utilities. Although PG&E is building the Gateway plant, there is also a fossil fuel plant being built by the utility in Colusa, as well as peakers in Mendota and Fresno. Other Mirant power plants located on the Sacramento Delta are in the sights of the state and environmentalists. They sit at a key geographical point where the endangered Delta smelt and other species pass through, including salmon, for which fishing has been shut down this year. Nuclear plants are the biggest consumers of seawater for electricity production. Together San Onofre units and Diablo Canyon plants take in a total 5 billion gallons/day. For the last decade, the state’s pursued their utility owners to decrease marine life destruction. For instance, Diablo Canyon’s outflow is 13 degrees hotter than the intake seawater. While both Edison and PG&E note the expectation of massive infusions of electric generation, they both state that their forecasts include keeping their nuclear plants on line.

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