CHICAGO (MCT) — As fish die in record numbers across Illinois this summer because of the intense heat and drought, state officials are granting power plants special exemptions to flush massive amounts of hot water into already stressed lakes and rivers.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is allowing power plants to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day at temperatures approaching 100 degrees into the state’s waterways, the Chicago Tribune has learned.
Temperature-sensitive fish already have been swimming deeper to find cooler water or have been abandoning environmentally inhospitable areas during the heat and drought. But with power plant operators dumping hot water at record amounts, environmentalists say the species, along with the rivers and lakes they live in, could face increased risk.
Regulators and power plant operators say the waivers to release water hotter than normal are necessary to continue providing adequate power in August, following the warmest July in U.S. history when energy demand from air conditioners was soaring.
“Do you want people to start dying, or do you want to save some fish?” said Julia Wozniak, of Midwest Generation, whose job is to make sure the plants remain in compliance with thermal emission limitations.
In issuing the variances to four coal-fired plants and four nuclear plants, the IEPA has largely relied on power plant and grid operators to say whether shutting down any individual facility would lead to widespread power outages.
Plant operators — struggling because of stubbornly low electricity prices — have a financial incentive to keep plants running rather than power down because of water temperatures. Analysts say for every day that a power plant shuts down, its owner loses hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Midwest Generation, which operates six coal-fired plants in Illinois, is struggling and may be forced to seek bankruptcy protection along with its parent company, executives said earlier this month.
The plant operators insist that they must continue to produce electricity to meet the demand, including what is needed to protect the sick and elderly during torrid conditions.
Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office in Chicago, said state officials are making a mistake by granting variances to power companies to exceed hot water thresholds. Instead, power plants should power down, he said.
“Illinois exports energy; we have energy security,” he said. “The powering down is not a threat to energy security.”
The state’s waterways have not shown any signs of serious damage as a result of the variances issued to power producers, according to the IEPA. But the hot water releases have drawn fire from environmental groups that say Illinois is allowing thermal pollution from power companies when the state should be focusing on the future of energy production in a warming climate.
The IEPA issues permits to the state’s nuclear and coal-fired power plants, allowing them to draw what the industry terms “cooling water” from rivers and lakes.
Both coal-fired and nuclear plants use the water in the process to create electricity and to cool their equipment, before returning it to the waterways. They must first allow the water to cool so it won’t wreak havoc on fish and the habitat in rivers and lakes. Under state law, the maximum threshold during normal operations is 90 degrees. But with a waiver, in some instances that level limit has been increased to temperatures reaching 97 degrees.
In recent months, as energy demand has increased, the power companies have not been able to cool down the water adequately. So, the IEPA is allowing them to discharge more water over the threshold limit than at any time in the past, the Tribune found.
This year, the state issued a record 29 provisional variances or variance extensions, said Roger Callaway of the IEPA.
“If we’ve got grid alerts out, we are going to (issue) the variance,” said Callaway. “This particular year, we have not denied one.”
Grid alerts are warning issued by agencies responsible for grid stability during times of peak demand.
Callaway added that he has never seen a more uncertain time for the power supply in 40 years working in environmental compliance.
He said that when Chicago endured three consecutive days of 100 degree weather in early July, a faltering power supply almost resulted in a “brown out,” a drop in voltage or an outage lasting minutes or hours, according to anecdotal information he said he received from a power plant operator.
Officials could not confirm the operator’s assertions of brown out threats. A spokesman for ComEd said they do not track such threats.
Still, at any given time, some plants can go offline because other power plants can pick up the slack, said Ray Dotter, a spokesman for the PJM Interconnection, the electrical grid operator which oversees the ComEd region. But in some areas of the state where there are fewer transmission lines to flow power from other sources, there isn’t as much wiggle room.
According to Callaway, cooling problems for the power companies are aggravated because the water flow in many streams has been reduced to a trickle by drought, and the natural temperatures are warmer than unusual.
Elsewhere in the country, including the East Coast, high temperatures and dwindling water resources have forced some nuclear reactors to power down.
Dominion-owned Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut shut down this month because of record-breaking temperatures in Long Island Sound, which the plant relies on for cooling.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has observed a record number of fish kills around the state this year, said Debbie Bruce, chief of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ division and a member of the Illinois Drought Response Task Force. However, power plants have not been linked directly to any of them, an official said.
“We’ve seen fish kills everywhere this summer; it’s not anything that can be helped,” she said.
If they are forced to reduce capacity significantly or shut down, power companies warn that a crisis could ensue.
“If the whole grid is going to start to go down, someone is going to have to make a determination,” said Wozniak, of Midwest Generation.
Coal-burning power plants owned by Midwest Generation in the southwest suburbs and Ameren-Edwards in Peoria have repeatedly requested IEPA approval to discharge water hotter than threshold limits in to the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, records show.
In addition to the desire to supply enough electricity to the grid to meet demand, power companies have another motivation to keep plants online.
“Obviously we’re in the business to generate power, and we don’t get paid if we don’t do that,” said Wozniak.
When too many producers are forced to shut down, that power needs to be replaced somehow, a cost that is either borne by consumers or by the company itself, depending on the market.
“As their water source dries up that could have a significant impact on the amount of time those plants can run,” said Travis Miller, director of utilities research at Chicago-based Morningstar. “You could see significant reductions in generation and that would impact profits and potentially customers’ bills.”
The hot water issue also has drawn the attention of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Braidwood Nuclear Plant in Will County had to obtain special permission to continue operating from the NRC in July when temperatures in its cooling lake crept in to the upper 90s.
To ensure that the plant will be able to respond in case of a nuclear accident, Braidwood is required to shutdown if the temperature in its cooling pond reaches 100 degrees, unless they “make a really strong case to the NRC,” said agency spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng.
The NRC is also closely monitoring the Dresden nuclear plant in Grundy County as well as the Quad Cities stations in Rock Island County, where cooling pond temperatures have approached their limits.
The “recent hot temperatures have not challenged the safety of nuclear plants in Illinois,” the NRC said, adding problems remain a concern only from an “operational and environmental” standpoint.
Last Wednesday afternoon, the Braidwood cooling pond was the picture of serenity.
With birds circling, a handful of fisherman cast lines in to the man-made lake from the shore opposite the Braidwood nuclear reactor.
“It’s bathwater,” said one of them, complaining that catfish were the only fish tough enough to remain in the shallows.
“While the primary purpose of the lake is to cool the plant, we also enjoy being able to provide fisherman with a recreational opportunity,” said Neal Miller, a spokesman for Exelon.
Nuclear power could help reverse the effects of climate change, some advocates say. Compared to coal-fired power plants, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear fuel is a clean energy.
But the impact on water resources could pose serious risks, said a spokeswoman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research group.
The organization recently issued a report illustrating how steam-electric generating plants, “built for a water-rich world,” could fail to meet demand at increasing rates as the world grows warmer.
“Can this possibly be more than a short-term stop-gap measure?” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, an analyst in Cambridge who works on the group’s Energy and Water Initiative.
Power companies expect to experience more challenges to their water supply in August, historically the most challenging time of year.
The question which IEPA could not answer is at what point state power companies will have to shut down reduce capacity to prevent serious environmental impact.
“Should we see some kind of problem, they will have to take action,” Callaway said. “I do not know what that action would be.”