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Source: Newsday

LI power plants' freshwater usage breeds concern


Posted: November 6, 2015
Originally Published: November 1, 2015

Long Island power plants, some already under fire for the billions of gallons of salt water they draw for use in cooling, are also among the biggest users of fresh water, according to figures from the Suffolk County Water Authority.

National Grid's Northport power plant has been Suffolk's biggest commercial user of water for the past five years, drawing an average 95 million gallons of water annually. The 1,580-megawatt plant, Long Island's largest, uses fresh water for steam generation to power turbines and to heat fuel oil. Billions of gallons of salt water also are used in a separate process to cool the systems.

The 391-megawatt E.F. Barrett plant in Island Park draws an estimated 81 million gallons of fresh water each year from local systems. Overall figures for Nassau County weren't available.

It's not just the old steam generators that have a huge thirst for water. Several smaller plants, including those that convert waste to energy, are also among the top 50 users of public water, guzzling tens of millions gallons each year. Many plants also have their own wells or alternative sources of water, pushing water use even higher.

Little-known impact

Long Island's oldest power plants have been criticized by conservationists and the state for their huge saltwater use, but their use of fresh water is a little-known impact that some say puts a strain on Long Island's sole-source aquifer.

The National Grid power plant in Northport draws 939 million gallons of salt water from the Long Island Sound, according to figures from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The practice destroys an estimated 8.4 billion fish eggs and larvae a year and kills or injures up to 127,118 fish, which can get trapped in intake filters and other plant gear.

Grid's Island Park plant draws 294 million gallons of salt water a day from Western Bays during operation, destroying some 906 million fish eggs and up to 176,044 fish a year.

Salt water is used almost exclusively for cooling, and doesn't come in contact with internal equipment. Fresh water is primarily used in power generation to make the steam that turns the turbines to generate electricity. Its use is considered an essential public need.

Concern builds

Matthew Cordaro, a former executive vice president of Long Island Lighting Co., which built the plants in the 1950s and 1960s, said he was surprised more people haven't raised objections to the freshwater usage of local plants.

"It's a big issue for an island like ours which depends on underground aquifers for its total source of drinking water," said Cordaro, who is also a Long Island Power Authority trustee. "The fact is that in the production of power we're withdrawing millions and millions of gallons and not replenishing it."

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the high freshwater use is a problem because it stresses the public water system. "The plants are not only polluting the air, they are overusing the water supply," she said. "That is a lot of water. I'm interested to know how that's impacting salt water intrusion in those areas."

A New York Power Authority-owned plant in Holtsville is listed as a big water user among municipal entities and their water consumption. In 2014, the plant used 49.7 million gallons of Suffolk Water Authority water. But that amount is just a fraction of the amount of water it draws from Long Island aquifers through its own wells. In all, the plant uses 230 million gallons of water a year.

Other big users on the Suffolk list include golf courses, such as Bretton Woods in Coram, the second biggest commercial water user, at 71 million gallons in 2014.

It's not just the Island's biggest plants that are big users. Smaller plants built to provide power at peak times are also on the list. In 2014, a 79.9-megawatt plant known as Pinelawn Power in West Babylon drew 32.4 million gallons, according to the Suffolk Water Authority.

At least two waste-to-energy plants operated by Covanta of Morristown, New Jersey, one in Huntington and the other in Babylon, drew 30.3 million and 25 million gallons, respectively, according to Suffolk Water Authority figures. Covanta also operates a 72-megawatt, waste-to-energy facility in Hempstead. That plant uses 450 million gallons a year, all of it drawn from Hempstead wells.

James Regan, a Covanta spokesman, emphasized that the plants do not use any salt water for cooling, as do the big National Grid plants, so comparisons of freshwater and saltwater use aren't comparable. He noted that the West Babylon plant uses a total of 300 million gallons of water a year, the vast majority of it leachate from the nearby landfill that is purified at the plant. "There's a big push to find ways to reduce water usage," he said.

National Grid's Port Jefferson power plant is also a big user. Its water comes from a combination of Suffolk Water Authority and company-operated wells. The plant, which operates less than 5 percent of the year, used a total 53 million gallons last year.

Water-saving alternative

Modernized cooling systems could greatly reduce the amount of fresh water the plants draw, but the cost of installing them is very high. National Grid has resisted installing closed-loop cooling systems to alleviate the need for so much salt water primarily because of the cost of the systems.

"You either go to an [air-cooled] radiator or you shut them down," said Cordaro, referring to air-cooled systems that allow water to be cooled in giant radiator-like devices for reuse by the system.

Caithness Long Island Energy president Ross Ain said the plant has an air-cooled condenser system that uses just under 10 million gallons of fresh water a year. Water authority figures say the plant used just under 13 million gallons through the end of August. In addition, documents filed by Caithness with Brookhaven Town say the plant uses closer to 18.4 million gallons a year and that a proposed plant would use 52.6 million gallons a year.

Like the Covanta units, Caithness does not rely on any salt water intake for cooling. The 350-megawatt Yaphank plant, which was completed in 2008, is used more frequently than the older steam plants, and so its freshwater use per megawatt of power generated is considerably lower. Only renewable energy plants such as solar use less. The plant reuses all the water it turns to steam to power turbines.

"We don't allow any of the water to escape back into the atmosphere," said Ain, whose company wants to build a second plant double the size of the original on the same location. Caithness II would produce 750 megawatts of energy.

National Grid runs the water it gets from Suffolk through two reverse-osmosis purifiers. Pure water is needed because of the high pressures and temperatures of the turbine system, which heats the water to 1,005 degrees, and pressurizes it to 2,425 pounds per square inch. (Impure water could damage the systems.)

Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said the company has decreased its freshwater usage over time because the plants have been used less, the company fuels less with oil, and it has replaced old water purification systems with reverse osmosis systems that greatly reduce water waste.

"The new systems are much more efficient in their use of water," she said.