State of the Planet

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Struggle to Keep Fish, People & Power Companies Happy

Indian Point Energy Center is a nuclear power plant located on the Hudson River which uses once-through cooling. Source: Daniel Case (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Watch’s animation here and’s report here.

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.

Ravenswood Power Plant in Queens, NY. Source: Jim.henderson (Wikimedia Commons)

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).

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13 years ago

Unfortunately this article only gives part of the story. First the 17 billion eggs killed is a complete exaggeration. It is based on every plant running 24hr/365 days per year, which does not happen. One winter flounder female spawns between 0.5 million to 1.5 million eggs annually. Only two need to survive to be an adult to maintain the species. The real fact is nearly all the eggs die naturally. If they didn’t die naturally there would be a real environmental problem.

colin syme
colin syme
13 years ago

l am a leisure angler and l have noticed over the years and in several countries fished that there is an abundance of fish life around the outlet channels of power stations, why l am not sure, whether it is the warm water that attracts them of whether the fish are recycling the dead spawn by eating them but they are usually great places to fish.

12 years ago

[…] the existing infrastructure, and in New York State the Department of Environmental Conservation is looking at some of those ways. Called, “Best Technology Available for Cooling Water Intake Structures”, […]