ENVIRONMENT:

Droughts in Southeast raise stakes for power plants grappling with water management

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- The four large smokestacks at Georgia Power's Plant Bowen tower over the smaller tents, sheds and buildings that make up what essentially is a living laboratory for water management and treatment at power plants.

This is the Water Research Center. The idea -- and some of the startup money -- came from Georgia Power, but what develops from the research could transform the utility industry nationwide as it faces water and wastewater regulations and stricter conservation measures.

The center is a partnership between national utility industry research groups and 14 electric companies, including Georgia Power's parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Georgia Power took $6 million and approached the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which was able to double that amount, minus $3 million to $4 million for overhead.

The center has seven focus areas. These include making cooling systems more efficient and how to better manage water on-site.

When it comes to power plants, air pollution has taken center stage as of late. U.S. EPA has rolled out a suite of regulations to curb mercury and other air toxins and now is targeting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

But gas generators, coal-fired units and nuclear power plants use a significant amount of water to operate. Some of the water is used to cool components, for example. Water also is used to create steam, which turns generators to produce electricity.

The four units at Plant Bowen create 3,200 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 500,000 homes. The power plant also uses 30,000 gallons of water a minute to operate.

"We're definitely a large user of water," said Jeff Wilson, a research engineer with Southern's research and environmental affairs unit.

The utility industry extracts 40 percent of all of the water withdrawn from freshwater sources in the nation, Wilson said. Of that amount, utilities use about 3 percent of it, and the rest is returned, the industry argues.

In other words, industry puts back most of the water it withdraws, he said.

Water costs rising in the East

When it comes to water use, utilities in the Southeast have two challenges. One is pending EPA regulations that will affect the entire utility industry (Greenwire, Sept. 27, 2013).

The second challenge is unique to the Southeast. The region faced a drought a couple of years ago, but unlike the West Coast, there's been little mandated conservation efforts, and a value has not been placed on water.

There's speculation that will change.

"Generally, for us the water has always been free," said Morgan French, a research engineer with Southern's research and environmental affairs unit. "Out West, they have a value on water. Is that coming here?"

Georgia Power and EPRI are two of 18 "funding partners," which include other utilities and industry groups. EPRI owns the center, which opened last November. In the future, Southern will own the site, and the Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Research Institute will operate it. A company that wants to test something has to call SRI first.

French says the center is "plug and play." It provides the electricity, the water and anything else companies need to come in and start testing their systems.

Everything at the center is a test pilot to help utilities achieve new guidelines, French said. Many of the technologies came from other industries, such as hydraulic fracturing, and are commercially available. "They are not new concepts, just new to this use," he said.

Utilities need to modify those technologies to work for them, said French, who basically considers himself a technology scout and salesman for the center.

"This place has a national audience," French told EnergyWire during a tour of the site. "These are big, giant sales pitches."

Pollution 'hit list'

It's likely those companies will have buyers soon as EPA regulations for wastewater develop. The water that runs through pollution-control equipment known as scrubbers carries its own heavy metals, and eventually it will have to be treated to comply with those rules.

The contaminants on the "hit list" are heavy metals: arsenic, selenium, mercury, nitrites and nitrates, French said, explaining the process. When these metals are burned at a coal plant, they change to iron. A scrubber catches the metals and concentrates them.

"We have to treat that water and bring it down to lower levels," French said. The utility's goal is to do this before putting the materials in a landfill.

"We don't want to put the solids in a landfill and then have to treat that," he said.

There are several ways to tackle this. Some companies use biological systems, others use chemical ones. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, French said.

In the end, the best systems are the ones that can be scaled up to a larger size without becoming too costly. Operating and maintenance costs are a factor, for example.

"It's more than just 'Does it work?'" French said.

Not anyone can just roll in to the research center with a mix of tubes and chemicals; the product has to have some reasonable chance of development.

"My phone rings off the hook, that's why I have a checklist," French said.

Some utilities already are using water treatment systems. Duke Energy Corp., the nation's largest electric utility, is the leader in this, French said. Duke is using a full-scale commercial system from General Electric Co. that removes advanced biological metals (ABMet).

GE ABMet is "who everybody is trying to catch," French said. "It's my job to help everybody else."

Twitter: @BizWriterKristi | Email: kswartz@eenews.net

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