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Source: Long Island Business News

Hot water


Posted: March 27, 2010
Originally Published: March 26, 2010

After decades of focusing on what power plants spew out, New York regulators are taking a hard look at what they suck in.

The answer is water, close to 2 billion gallons per day at Long Island plants, along with hundreds of thousands of fish and other sea life that get slammed against intake screens.

Industry-speak for dead fish: “Impingement.”

Billions more fish eggs and larvae get pulled into power plant systems and are boiled alive as the water is heated into steam to turn electricity-producing turbines. The steam is then returned to liquid form and pumped back out to sea.

Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposed tough new measures that would require closed-circulation cooling systems at New York power plants. The move would reduce their water usage by 90 percent while protecting the state’s important commercial and recreational fishing industries, according to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis.

The proposed regulation, which can be instituted by the DEC without approval from the Legislature, is open for public comment until May 9.

The problem for National Grid’s Long Island plants is cost.

Bolting new cooling equipment onto the company’s aging generation systems would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In many cases, the fix would cost more than the plants are worth, suggesting they would be shuttered or rebuilt first.

“This could be a game changer for energy infrastructure on Long Island and throughout the state,” said Adrienne Esposito, president of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Farmingdale.

The “game” in this case is whether Long Island should continue to rely on National Grid’s plants, some more than 60 years old, or seek to replace them with more cost-effective facilities similar to the Caithness Energy plant in Yaphank, which uses just 50,000 gallons per day, a tiny fraction of the water pumped through Grid plants at Northport and Port Jefferson.

National Grid is seeking a buyer for its production facilities on the Island so that the firm can focus on electrical distribution, its specialty in other parts of the country and abroad. The Long Island Power Authority declined to exercise an option to buy the plants last year.

Rebuilding the oldest plants – the industry calls it “repowering” – has been a matter of debate for several years as LIPA has sought to balance environmental and cost concerns with its need to keep enough capacity online to meet peak power usage. But the DEC regulation could end that debate.

“This could be the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back on these old plants,” said Ross Ain, a spokesman at Caithness. “This could be cost prohibitive.”

Matthew Cordaro, a former utility executive and now dean of Dowling College’s Townsend School of Business, agrees. “It wouldn’t be economical to backfit the plants,” he told LIBN.

Estimated costs to retrofit the cooling systems, listed in an appendix of the proposed DEC regulation, are staggering. Modernizing National Grid’s Northport plant may cost more than $475 million over 20 years, including construction and maintenance. A retrofit at the company’s smaller E.F. Barrett plant in Island Park would cost almost $150 million over 20 years, according to the DEC. Statewide, conversion would cost $8.5 billion over 20 years, or almost 7 percent of the industry’s annual gross revenue.

Environmental activists argue that those costs are overblown. Either way, they’d like to see smaller, cleaner plants that also save ratepayers money.

“When they are forced to upgrade or just get more efficient, they sometimes repower,” said Reed Super, an attorney working with the Citizens Campaign and the Network for New Energy Choices.

Super pointed to an Environmental Protection Agency crackdown on a Dominion Energy plant in Somerset, Mass., that led the firm to invest $500 million in a retrofit. The monthly cost to ratepayers was about 25 cents, according to the EPA.

Public Service Enterprise Group spent $400 million to rebuild the 50-year-old Albany Steam Station, which reopened with closed-cycle cooling in 2005.

“They reduced their fish kills by 95 percent,” Super said. “It was a brand new plant that produces power efficiently.”

Long Island power plants kill more than 10.5 billion baby fish and larvae annually, as well as 400,000 mature fish.

“They’re drawing in billions of fish eggs, marine life and sea turtles that get stuck on the screens and die,” said Maureen Dolan Murphy, executive programs manager for the Citizens Campaign.

Rob Weldner, a construction worker who is president of Operation Splash, an environmental not-for-profit based in Freeport, once helped repair the water intake on the E.F. Barrett plant.

“I saw hundreds of horseshoe crabs pinned up against the intake gates,” he said. “The suction is tremendous. All the fish I saw on the screens. I said to myself, ‘This is real bad, (but) there’s no way to get around it.’”

Winter flounder have been most impacted by the plants, according to local fishing experts, leading to ever-tougher limits for anglers. Conversely, the warmer waters discharged by the plants attract striped bass and other fish in the winter, providing some of the Island’s most fertile fishing areas.

Environmentalists note that modern plants with closed cooling systems like the Caithness plant use so little water that they can be located anywhere, safeguarding coastal waters and eliminating beachfront eyesores.

Power officials are offering a measured response to the proposed DEC regulation.

National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said her firm is reviewing the draft policy and plans to submit comments to the agency. Her company seeks a “high level of environmental protection in a manner that is sensitive to the cost impacts on ratepayers,” she said.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a LIPA spokeswoman, also suggested there may be other ways to address the state’s environmental concerns.

“We’re analyzing different solutions and possibilities,” she said. “There may be things we can do that are cost-effective that can mitigate the problem to 80 or 90 percent. We’re looking at other possible solutions.”

Following the public comment period, the DEC can decide to implement the policy as written, scale it back or do nothing.