Sucking Up: Power plant must modernize–but what about Poseidon?

This story was first published by the Surf City Voice, May 10, 2010

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Surf City’s power generator, owned and operated by AES Southland, and located on the corner of Newland Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, will be replaced with a brand new and fully modern plant, minus the industrial dinosaur look–including the ugly smoke stacks that leak large steam plumes into the sky—currently a visual blight for miles around juxtaposed with one of the most beautiful coastlines in the state.

That’s good news for the city’s residents and tourists, but even better news for the millions of marine animals that would otherwise be killed by being sucked through the plant’s intake pipes along with seawater used to cool the plant.

AES seawater intake system that Poseidon wants to use. Photo from Poseidon EIR

The good news comes from a May 4 decision by the State Water Board that was long expected and is intended to stop the massive destruction of marine life by requiring power plants to use the “best technology available for minimizing environmental impact” or reduce water intake in order to create no greater an impact.

The ruling will affect 19 power generators along the California coast.

In effect, that means AES will either have to shut down or find an alternative to the “once-through-cooling” (OTC) process it currently uses to cool it’s Huntington Beach facility as well as generators in Long Beach and Redondo Beach.

The new standard must be met by 2020; the State Water Board could give more time for AES HB and other power plants to comply in phases, but change is coming.

So says the State—and so said AES president Eric Pendergraft at a May 18 meeting of the South East Committee, part of the city’s periodic public update about issues of particular importance to the residents of the southeast portion of the city, where the long awaited cleanup of a major toxic waste dump is also about to occur and where Poseidon Resources Inc. hopes to build a 50 million gallon per day desalination plant—right next to the AES plant, to be exact.

“Our intentions are to modernize the plant, basically replace the existing infrastructure,” Pendergast explained to a delighted group of SE residents.

“So, we’re not just upgrading the existing facilities. We’d be building a brand new plant, lower profile, more efficient, more State of the art. And the new units would not use the once-through-cooling system. We haven’t determined exactly what the alternate cooling system we would use is, but we would be moving away from using ocean water to cool the process.”

The new power plant will be located farther inland, Pendergraft said, and will look more like a building and be less visible to motorists driving down PCH.

But then Pendergraft issued a caveat that bothered Mayor Pro-tem Jill Hardy, who facilitated the meeting, and probably everyone else in the audience who had been trying for years to modernize the power plant and stop Poseidon.

Pointing out that the state’s new OTC policy applies only to power generating plants, not desalination facilities like Poseidon’s, he qualified his earlier statement.

Mark Pendergraft
Eric Pendergraft. Photo SCV

“Now, just so no one thinks I’m pulling a fast one on anybody,” Pendergraft confessed, “if the desal plant gets built, and it’s able to use some of the existing circulating water system, we will make an argument that we can use the same amount of water to cool our power plant, nothing more.”

Poseidon needs the OTC pipes to suck in the 127 million gallons of seawater for conversion to fresh water and in order to fulfill the project plan it is trying to sell to private investors and public agencies.

For administrative reasons, the State Water Board put off making a decision on desalination facilities until later, but Pendergraft and pro-environment groups expect a deMayor Hardy was quick to point out that Pendergraft was making the same argument in reverse that Poseidon made five-years-ago to justify its use of the AES water intake pipes. That’s when city council members Don Hansen, Gil Coerper, Cathy Green and Keith Bohr approved Poseidon’s first and highly disputed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that denied the project had any adverse environmental effects or that there were better alternatives.

“And if that [desalination plant] gets permitted, AES is basically going to say the same thing Poseidon said before: ‘We can’t do more environmental damage because Poseidon is already doing whatever is being done,’” Hardy reasoned, mocking Poseidon’s long standing argument.

“Or fully mitigating for it,” Pendergraft responded.

“The alternative would be that Poseidon is using that system and we can’t, and we build a unit that sits right next to it with some alternate form of cooling system. We’re actually incurring more environmental impacts by doing it that way than if we could co-use the same circulating water,” he added.

“It’s the argument we’d make.”

“Which would need to be looked at,” Hardy answered.

Hardy voted against the Poseidon desalination proposal along with former members Debbie Cook and Dave Sullivan.

Council member Devin Dwyer, who was not on the council at the time the project was approved but has always indicated his strong support for it, asked Pendergraft about so-called wedge-wire-screening that Poseidon advocates claim is being used successfully in Australian desalination plants to minimize the killing machine effects of the OTC seawater intake process.

Pendergraft said that it was being tested on a small scale at the AES power plant in Redondo Beach for possible future use.

“My guess is, that when the Water Board comes around and gets to putting the policy into effect for desal, it’s going to include or require some form of screening on the intake,” he answered, adding, “But, really, that’s sort of in Poseidon’s house.”

Joe Geever, the regional director of the Surfrider Foundation, which has been fighting for years to modernize power plants on the California coast and to stop Poseidon’s plans to build virtually identical desalination plants in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad, was delighted at the possibility that AES would upgrade its plants, a move which he said would complement the state’s intention to rely more on renewable energy, but he criticized AES for sending a confusing message.

“It’s not clear to me why Mr. Pendergraft would be considering some of that water for cooling. Either AES is committing to modernizing with closed-cycle cooling that doesn’t require the amount of water that Poseidon intends to use, or they’re not,” he told the Voice.

Environmental Impact
The closed-cycle cooling process circulates the same water in a continuous cycle. Only about five percent of it is lost to evaporation and needs to be replaced, thus reducing the seawater intake by at least 83 percent.

That means far less destruction of marine life.

Geever believes that it’s likely that many of California’s power generating plants will be replaced with a “combined cycle” format, so named because it would capture the heat produced by a primary generator’s closed-cycle system and use it to drive a secondary unit that converts the heat into electricity.

“These new high efficiency generators are predicted to be an important component of our transition to renewable sources—wind and solar generators,” he said. “The idea is that, when the wind isn’t blowing and it’s dark, these high efficiency generators can be turned on and off very quickly to ensure an ample supply of electricity for the grid.”

But for the past ten years, AES, Poseidon and the city’s planning staff have denied that the OTC process has any significant effect on marine life in the immediate ocean area, citing a single study that shows only a very small percentage of adult or larvae marine life are killed by the AES water intake system.

AES power plant
AES power generator plant in Huntington Beach (2006). Photo SCV

According to a 2006 report by the Pacific Institute, however, a broader slate of studies shows that the effects of OTC systems vary according to site and design specifics, but have significant environmental impacts, including the potential loss of vast areas of ocean habitat.

But Geever points out that the state, through the California Ocean Protection Council, State Water Resources Control Board, California Energy Commission, State Lands Commission, Coastal Commission, as well as various Federal agencies, have found the environmental impacts of OTC to be significant.

Poseidon’s Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (SEIR), required due plans to change AES plant’s location, and now available for public comment, argues that, in any case, Poseidon can use the in-take system as is because it would be used desalinate, not for cooling the power generator. The State Water Board’s ruling, it argues, comes from the Federal Clean Water Act, which applies only to power plants, not desalination facilities.

But the State Water Board must also follow state law under a section of the California Water Code, known as the Porter Cologne Act, which governs any new industrial use of seawater, including desalination plants, and is stricter than federal law because it requires not only the best technology available, but best site and design as well.

Without direct explanation, the SEIR quickly concludes that the Poseidon project does not violate the Water Code, but Geever says that application of the stricter state law will prevent the project from going forward as is.

“Poseidon can still go forward with a desal facility,” he says, “but we believe it will mean they have to redesign the facility to become compatible with ‘sub-seafloor intakes,’ the alternative that is clearly the ‘best technology available’ to minimize the intake and mortality of marine life mandated by the Water Code.”

That would mean designing the Poseidon project to make it like the one envisioned by the Municipal Water District of Orange County for Dana Point. That project, currently in the testing phase, would use slanted wells to suck in seawater from beneath the sand to create 15 million gallons of drinking water per day for south Orange County, much less than the amount Poseidon wants to create in Huntington Beach.

“They have consistently refused to analyze this alternative,” Geever says, “so we have no idea whether that is a change they would agree to and pursue.”

In fact, the SEIR assumes the current 50 million gallon per day production design is a foregone conclusion, a fact that Geever calls “one of its most blatant flaws.”

If a 50 million gallon desalination plant is not viable using the “best technology” or location problems prevent that technology from being used, the proposal won’t meet the legal requirements, he says. “The SEIR should make that clear from the start.”

As for better intake screening or other offsite alternatives to mitigate for the loss of marine life, Geever is doubtful. “To my knowledge, there is no evidence yet that screening technologies perform as well as sub-seafloor intakes.”

Nor would the state law, in his view, allow Poseidon to “continue sucking in and killing sea life and then trying to replace them with restoration projects, which is what they are proposing in Carlsbad.”

And allowing desalination plants to do what power plants are prohibited from doing wouldn’t make sense, he says.

“Practically speaking, it just wouldn’t be sound policy for the state to compel the generator [company] to spend money updating its facility to protect marine life and then turn around and let a desal facility kill all those fish.”

Poseidon CEO Scott Maloni said at a recent Orange County water summit that, if the company could not use OTC at the Huntington Beach desalination plant, it would “not only be more environmentally damaging, but it would probably make the project financially unfeasible because we couldn’t use water at competitive rate.”

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