Up to 17 natural gas-fired electric generation plants along California’s coast are the main focus of new water cooling restrictions adoped last Tuesday by a state water board in close collaboration with the state’s major energy agencies. The arcane and still-not-fully-developed rules were approved by the California Water Resources Control Board after five years of analysis, a full day of testimony from staff and stakeholders, and the clarification of 17 last-minute amendments.

The complex set of rules to phase in a ban on water cooling for the 17 coastal electric generation plants, along with two major nuclear power facilities, was adopted unanimously by the five-member panel after an exhaustive, heavily staff-driven process that started in 2006.

Water board Chief Deputy Director Jonathan Bishop last Wednesday summarized the action as an attempt to remove the “impacts associated with ocean water intakes” at the plants and replace them with a less harmful technology while all the time coordinating with energy companies and state regulators charged with protecting grid reliability. The state’s major energy agencies “helped craft how this new process actually works,” Bishop said.

From the standpoint of major generators, the 17 amendments added during the board’s all-day meeting means more analysis to determine whether they can live with the new rules.

From Southern California Edison Co.’s (SCE) initial assessment Wednesday there are several “concerns” needing to be addressed, including what SCE concluded is a “weakening” of the role of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), and without some changes in the adopted compliance schedule some fossil fuel-fired generation plants will need to make major retrofits or close down.

“During the coming months, SCE will assess with the other plant owners the expected consequences of Tuesday’s policy decision and determine how best to help ensure that the state has a once-through-cooling [OTC] policy that protects the environment, electric system reliability and the economy,” an SCE spokesperson said.

With its major nuclear facility as its only plant using OTC, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) said it supports “an orderly transition away from OTC,” and it holds out the hope that the processes and phased implementation can provide an “OTC policy that works. A coordinated and effective implementation a is key to ensuring grid stability.”

A number of the gas-fired plants operated by independent generators, such as Princeton, NJ-based NRG Energy Inc., have plans now before state permitting authorities to repower their existing sites, and the new water board cooling rules are supposed to be able to accommodate these infrastructure upgrades already underway.

Bishop reiterated several times that the water board will be working with the state energy agencies throughout the process, including the grid operator, CAISO. He also noted that the state’s two nuclear plants will go down a different road that first will involve a detailed [up to three years] study to determine what is feasible at the plants that account for 4,400 MW of baseload power.

Going into the session, the water board’s staff published draft proposals drawing input from both the power generation and environmental sectors, along with the state’s major energy and environmental agencies, such as the Coastal Commission, Air Resources Board, Public Utilities Commission, Energy Commission and CAISO.

Earlier this year the utilities thought some middle ground had been found for their respective nuclear sites, PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and SCE’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). But more than two-dozen environmental organizations were strongly opposed to letting CAISO determine how the plants were handled under the rules. The rules phase in plant changes during the next 12 to 14 years, with SONGS and Diablo slated as the last two plants having to abandon OTC using seawater.

SCE was particularly lobbying hard to have the state water board’s new OTC rules allow for ongoing efforts such as the state coastal commission-approved, $100 million mitigation the Edison International utility is doing off the coast of San Diego County in and around SONGS. “The new policy calls for yet another costly study of the impact of SONGS on local marine life with the possibility that approximately $3 billion in cooling tower retrofits might be required,” the SCE spokesperson said.

PG&E said it “strongly supports” the water board’s modification of the OTC policy requiring any independent third-party hired to review existing feasibility studies or prepare additional studies have nuclear engineering expertise. The combination utility called it “crucial” to ensure the processes are conducted and managed by people familiar with nuke plant operations.

In 2008 SCE gained state regulatory approval for an offshore environmental program along the Southern California coast. It has led to the creation of a 150-acre kelp forest off nearby San Clemente, CA, to help counteract the nuclear plant’s impact on marine life.

“We think [the water board members] need to look at the potential alternatives from the standpoint of the cost compared to the value and benefits provided. That is really the only way you can look at the environmental part of the equation,” SCE Environmental Director Mike Hertel told NGI. “[The new rules] don’t take into consideration feasibility, which in our case involve a major highway.”

The state’s power generators think California’s coastal plants face possible shutdowns at a time when new plant construction is stalled by growing air emissions restrictions.

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