Water Board Backs Off Cooling Policy for LA & Moss Landing

By Published On: October 8, 2010

The State Water Resources Control Board is set to exempt three major coastal power plants from its mandate to phase out once-through cooling. The proposed change--due to be considered December 14--comes in response to heavy lobbying by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The muni is facing mounting environmental regulations for its power plants. Under the change, specific units in the three plants with a combined generating capacity of about 2,000 MW would be able to run until the end of their useful lives. That termination date would be specified by their operators. In exchange for the exemption, they would pay a mitigation fee of $3 per million gallons of sea water pulled into power plants to cool spinning turbines. For instance, Moss Landing’s combined cycle units’ 1 and 2 average water use is 193 million gallons a day, according to the Water Board, so the deal would run its owner, Dynegy, about $211,000/year. For LADWP, the proposed change would mean escaping an estimated $1.7 billion in retrofit costs. Instead, LADWP would pay an annual mitigation fee for its 560 MW Haynes power plant of about $280,000 based on the Water Board’s records of average water usage. The muni also would pay each year $65,000 to mitigate the impacts on marine life of its 466 MW Harbor plant. In announcing the proposed amendment September 29, Water Board staff said the carve-out is justified because the plants use combined-cycle turbine technology, which is energy efficient and uses less cooling water than simple cycle plants. Sara Sikich, Heal the Bay coastal resources director, said the environmental impact of the proposal would be tremendous. She invoked the open-ended nature of the exemption. Originally, she said, LADWP discussed delaying compliance with the policy for 11 years, until 2031. Now, Sikich said, it wants to avoid compliance until it decides it no longer needs the plants. She added the facilities draw huge volumes of water. For instance, she said, power plants--including a LADWP plant--take in 13 percent of the water in the Santa Monica Bay every six weeks. A LADWP spokesperson said the department wants to extend the compliance deadline to make it easier to afford retrofitting once-through cooled power plants to protect marine life. However, she would not give any definitive date as to when the department would comply with the phase out. Water Board spokesperson Judy Panneton said the change merely would allow plant owners to apply for an “extension” of time to comply. Once they applied, it would be up to the full Water Board to approve any extra time. The Water Board’s staff proposal pointed out that while other plant operators could seek extensions, combined-cycle plant operators would get “special considerations” due to their efficiencies. All three plants specifically named in the proposal are combined-cycle plants built over the past decade. To qualify for the extension, operators are to assess whether they could afford to place fine mesh screens over water intakes at their plants to prevent aquatic life from being entrained in the cooling systems. The proposal would amend a policy the Board adopted in May ordering power plant operators to rebuild their cooling systems or close plants altogether over the next decade (Current, May 7, 2010). The board adopted the policy under the federal Clean Water Act in order to protect marine organisms. Marine life is killed when power plants suck organisms through their cooling systems. Also, heated water the plants discharge impacts aquatic life, which is sensitive to temperature shocks. State water quality officials proposed the amendments after LADWP general manager Austin Buetner estimated late last spring said that it would cost the department $1.7 billion to end once through cooling at its plants, necessitating a 5 percent electricity rate hike. He called the policy “a great example of California regulation run amok.” Dynegy currently operates the Moss Landing plant, though not for long. Company spokesperson David Byford noted that the generator is in the process of selling out to the Blackstone Group, which in turn is expected to sell the Moss Landing plant and some other California power facilities to NRG Energy. He said that the deal was announced prior to the board’s proposal to change its policy on once-through cooling and is unrelated to the transaction. Panneton confirmed that since the Water Board adopted its initial once-through cooling policy, nobody connected to the Moss Landing plant has contacted the agency.

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