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California Regulators May Restrict Seawater Use by Gas, Nuke Plants

July 6, 2009
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After nearly a year's delay, California water quality officials last Tuesday released draft rules for substantially restricting the use of seawater cooling at electric generation plants, carrying potential adverse impacts on the numerous natural gas-fired power plants and two nuclear generating stations lining the state's coast. The move has caused consternation in the state energy industry and among energy officials since coastal plants account for 40% of the state's generating capacity.

The state Water Resources Control Board issued its draft policy aimed at 19 coastal power plants, including two major utility operated nuclear plants, using once-through cooling (OTC) water intake systems. The water board stressed in introducing its 13-page policy statement that the power plants will have choices on how to comply; an industry advisory committee, including key state energy agency representatives, and in some cases long lead-in times for compliance.

Officials at two of the state's largest private-sector power utilities, both of which operate 2,000 MW nuclear generating plants, said last week they won't comment until the draft ruling has been reviewed. Those utilities are Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant along the central coast near San Luis Obispo, and Southern California Edison Co. (SCE), which is the majority owner/operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) along the Southern California coast near San Clemente.

An unnamed source close to one of the utilities told NGI that the power plant operators are being placed in a no-win situation as it appears the water board staff has made cooling towers the "best available technology," and then challenged the plants to argue that standard should not be applied.

During the past three years in which the proposed ban has been in play among several state agencies, SCE and other major utility officials have expressed concerns about having to abandon seawater, or OTC, because of environmental and operating problems that could develop. The utility said it has already looked at, and rejected, alternatives to OTC.

Water Board Executive Director Dorothy Rice emphasized a dual purpose in the draft policy -- "to assure California's coastal waters are protected while making certain that essential electrical power is available to Californians."

State officials said currently a large number of fish, larvae, seals, sea lions and turtles are killed annually in the state due to the OTC process at the power plants. An estimated 16 billion gallons of seawater is used daily to cool the generation plant equipment, and the used, hot water is then returned to the ocean, the officials said.

The draft policy would give plant operators a choice of:

The overall compliance timeline is not clear and includes exceptions and other caveats now in the policy's draft stage. But the water board's announcement stressed two specific deadlines: (a) plant operators have a year after a final policy is effective to "install large organism (mammal) exclusion devices;" and (b) operators have five years to implement measures to "lessen marine life impingement and entrainment, and then continue to do so until full compliance is achieved."

To prevent possible electric system problems, the water board said it met regularly with representatives of the California Energy Commission (CEC), California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), State Lands Commission, California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to write the draft policy.

As envisioned, the draft policy calls for creating a statewide advisory committee to guide the eventual final policy's implementation. It would include representatives from the CEC, CPUC, lands commission, CARB and CAISO, along with the California Coastal Commission.

Within six months after the final policy's effective date, power plant operators would be required to file implementation plans with the state and regional water quality boards.

Earlier this year a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding a cost-benefit test before mandating environmental mitigation bolstered the generators' arguments. This decision particularly resonated in California, where in addition to the OTC policy draft there is proposed state legislation (SB 42) threatening to ban the use of seawater, potentially shutting down the state's many coastal-sited thermal generation plants.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can run a cost-benefit analysis to determine the best technology for mitigating the environmental impact rather than simply selecting the best technology available. That ruling could eventually be evoked in the case of California's draft rule if it becomes final, based on what some stakeholders are saying confidentially.

If the OTC rule forces plants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cooling tower or some other alternative technologies and the marine life is still not any better protected, then the new rules can't be considered reasonable without some cost-benefit analyses, a source told NGI.

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