There’s that water-energy nexus again – power plants in New York State are under scrutiny for the damage they cause to aquatic life and habitat and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is working on a policy, called “Best Technology Available (BTA) for Cooling Water Intake Structures,” to limit their impact.
There are currently 25 large power plants in NYS that use “once-through” cooling systems, which withdraw huge amounts of water, run it through the plant’s cooling system, and then release it back into the body of water it came from. The problem is that the water intake systems also suck in and kill nearly 17 billion eggs, larvae and young fish each year. An additional 171 million larger fish are injured or killed annually when they are trapped on intake screens. (This is called “entrainment and impingement mortality.”) The water that is discharged from the plant is also much hotter, which holds less oxygen and can disturb the ecosystem.
Plants built since 2001 have been required to use “closed-cycle” cooling technology, which recycles water use for cooling and greatly reduces fish mortality and water withdrawals. The DEC wants to require those 25 power plants to retrofit their plants with the closed-cycle system, which should reduce fish mortality by 90% or more. The draft policy includes some limited relief for sites that cannot physically accommodate cooling towers, generators with current historical capacity factors below 15%, and where the expense of a closed cooling water system is “wholly disproportionate” compared to the environmental benefits to be gained.
Opponents to the policy point to the cost of such retrofitting, arguing that it would be so expensive (the DEC estimated that it would cost $8.5 billion) that it would make some power plants unprofitable. As a result, the owners of those plants would shut down and the decreased energy supply in New York State would cause electricity prices to increase. According to opponents, it is also possible that installing these new cooling towers could decrease the efficiency of the plants and could release additional particulates and greenhouse gasses into the air. They argue that simpler, cheaper technologies, such as special screens over intake pipes, could be used to significantly decrease fish mortality. Proponents of closed-cycle cooling policy disagree.
In some ways this debate is similar to that surrounding hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast, in that we see water quality concerns impacting energy supply policy and vice versa. There is also still a need for further studies on environmental impacts. However there is at least one notable difference here – while the controversy over hydrofracking is essentially human interests (drinking water) versus human interests (electricity), the environment is up against humans in this situation, and as we know it’s only too easy to sacrifice environmental health for human needs (or wants).