Another Cruel, Cruel Summer for Power Plants

Fish are skilled at many things – swimming, migrating, using their bodies to make strange sounds – but they're definitely not known for their protests.

For decades, fish and other creatures swimming and floating in America’s rivers, lakes and oceans have been collateral damage in our quest to keep the lights on.  Most older power plants suck in lots of water to produce and cool steam used to generate electricity, and that water usually contains a lot of aquatic life that gets drawn into the cooling system or trapped on screens intended to keep them out. Each year, billions of fish meet a gruesome demise in exchange for keeping electricity flowing to the grid from a bunch of aging plants.

But then news came two weeks ago that thousands of fish banded together to shut down a power plant sited along a lake in Illinois. It was as if Illinois fish had a Norma Rae moment, standing together in solidarity!

Except they were all dead. It turns out that tens of thousands of fish in Midwestern streams, rivers and lakes have died in recent weeks thanks to the unrelenting drought and heat wave.  The number of fish carcasses was so extreme in that one Illinois lake that they clogged the cooling water intake screen of a power plant, forcing one of its generators to shut down.

Fish just cannot get a break.

But power plants across the country have also had yet another crappy summer because of the heat and drought. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dr. Michael Webber, an expert in the codependent relationship between the nation’s water and energy systems, warned that drought could be the cause of future blackouts because, among other reasons, about half of US fresh surface water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants.

That’s a significant vulnerability for the nation’s energy system (not to mention a crazy misuse of our most valuable resource) as an infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists clearly lays out. Power plants can face any of three problems: there’s not enough water for cooling, the incoming water is too warm for cooling or the outgoing water is so warm that it harms fish and wildlife.

There are plenty of examples of these three issues from just the past few months, as the Times reports:

In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.

The only real solutions are to force aging power plants to recirculate their cooling water (which new power plants are required to do) and to rely more upon renewable sources like solar panels and wind turbines, which use no water at all. In fact the EPA was recently in the process of requiring existing power plants to do the former in the name of protecting fish, but thanks to industry lobbying the rule was gutted and delayed until next summer.

But hey, it’s been 40 years since the Clean Water Act first required power plants to go easy on fish, so what’s another year?  As NRDC attorney Steve Fleischli said of the weak EPA rule, "The proposal they put out last year was so bad that time can only help them to review all the information in the record and improve upon it."

You'd hope that the power industry is taking note of its water vulnerability in an age of increasing drought and heat waves, because apparently it'll take more than a bizarro protest of tens of thousands of dead fish to get through to it.

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