California Phases Out Once Thru Cooling

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopted a policy on May 3, 2010 on once through cooling water use at nineteen California coastal power plants including the state’s nuclear power fleet.  This policy will be turned in the state regulations making California the first state to adopt rules phasing out the use of once thru cooling water in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives.

In April, New York regulators used this same issue corrosively to stymie Entergy’s proposed spin-off of its nuclear fleet into a separate subsidiary by denying a key water-quality permit that Entergy Corp. (ETR) needs to continue operating a nuclear power plant.

Doing Good While Still Doing Well

The new California OTC policy and rules that will follow do not have a hidden policy agenda.  Rather they settle a long standing dispute over how to update cooling water practices at some of the most critical power plants in the WECC power grid while avoiding uneconomic outcomes.  This docket represents one of those rare environmental proceedings where both industry and environmental groups have a lot to lose if the matter is handled badly.

No one disputed the negative environmental impacts from entrainment—sucking up marine life into the cooling water system or entrapment—suctioning tea turtles and larger creatures against the grates was bad.  The OTC systems kill an estimated 2.6 million fish, 19 billion fish larvae and 57 seals, sea lions and sea turtles each year. The question was how to fix the problem without cratering the WECC power grid reliability, implementation goals from AB32, and the California economy.

So what?

So for more than five years a regulatory battle has been waged over a legacy practice from power plant construction using seawater for cooling in the power generation process and then returning it to sea. The contest pitted power generators from the existing plants versus environmental groups.  The outcome, if done badly, threatened not only California’s electric reliability but also achievement of the emissions reduction goals under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

I disclose that I have a personal connection to this decision, and I am quite proud of the work done by Rich Lauckhart and the WECC Power Market Advisory team at Global Energy Decisions in this project.  As the battle over the environmental impacts of once thru cooling (OTC) raged, my firm Global Energy Decisions was hired by the California Ocean Protection Council to provide an independent analysis of the implications of various policy choices in this case on electric grid reliability and power operations.  And now, years later after Global Energy Decisions was sold and our entire team has gone on to other places, the policy adopted this week by the SWRCB lines up solidly with our conclusions and recommendations.

Our study report indicated that there would be an extreme reliability problem if permits were stopped in the next 1-2 years. But with enough lead time (e.g. 5+ years) and with special consideration for the nuclear plants, then the power industry should be able to adapt to a phase out of OTC in an environmentally responsible way that avoids reliability problems and significant economic impacts.

Some of the OTC affected plants can be modified to use other cooling methods primarily what the industry calls “wet cooling” methods of recycling cooling water.  Other plants may find it advantageous to use the shutdown to be “re-powered” with new gas fired generation that is more efficient than the old at the same time they replace the OTC with other cooling technology. This SWRCB action seems to be consistent with Global Energy Decision’s analysis of how to do it right.

You can read Rich Lauckhart’s report which was included in the final report on the EIS done by Jones & Stokes including the methodology and analysis of the alternative OTC scenarios here: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/tmdl/docs/power_plant_cooling/reliability_study.pdf

And congratulations to all the parties in this long, complex proceeding for a reasonable, fair and balanced outcome that works for California, works for our environment and keeps the lights on too.

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