THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 19, 2011 -
With utilities using massive amounts of water to cool power plants, the Florida Public Service Commission is concerned about proposed federal regulations aimed at protecting fish and other aquatic life.
The commission Friday sent documents to the Environmental Protection Agency and congressional members indicating that the proposal could drive up costs for utilities that suck in ocean or river water --- and, as a result, kill many fish and other sea organisms.
Ultimately, the commission and power companies say, the proposal would translate into higher costs for utility customers.
“The EPA’s proposed … rule has the potential for significant rate, and potentially reliability, impacts on Florida’s energy consumers,’’ the commission said in formal comments to the federal agency.
But environmental groups, which have waged a long-running legal fight about the power-plant issue, said the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
They want to move to systems in which cooling water is re-circulated through power plants, which would dramatically reduce the amount needed to be drawn out of water bodies.
Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposed regulations particularly do not solve a problem that affects small aquatic creatures, including eggs and larvae. Utilities use screens to prevent sea life from entering power-plant cooling systems, but small organisms sometimes get sucked through the screens and end up dying.
“Essentially, EPA has completely punted on the issue of how to protect smaller organisms, Fleischli said.
Utilities, on the other hand, say they need flexibility in another part of the proposal. That part deals with circumstances in which fish get pinned against the screens or other parts of the water-intake systems, causing injuries and often death.
The proposal would require power plants to meet specific limits on the amount of fish that are killed in those circumstances, which is known as “impingement.’’ That could require upgrading technology or reducing the flow of water into power plants.
Scott Sutton, a spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, said his company supports the goal of protecting aquatic life and even operates a hatchery at its Crystal River complex to help mitigate problems with fish dying. But Progress and other utilities say power plants should be evaluated individually.
“What concerns us about the proposed rule is a one-size-fits-all requirement would be a very costly proposition,’’ Sutton said.
The EPA released the proposal in March and is expected to issue final regulations in July 2012. Fleischli, whose organization has been part of the legal fights, said the federal Clean Water Act requires the use of “best technology available” in power-plant water intake systems.
With the final regulations still a year away, it is difficult to know exact details about how changes will affect Florida utilities. Also utilities would have up to eight years to comply.
But as an example, Florida Power & Light submitted information to the PSC that indicated 10 of its plants could be affected by the regulations. Jeff Rogers, a spokesman for Gulf Power Co., said three Gulf plants would be affected.
“Gulf does not have a solid cost estimate,’’ Rogers said in an e-mail. “These rules are subject to change, and once the final rule comes out, we will be able to come up with solid numbers.’’
In the documents submitted to the EPA, however, the Public Service Commission indicated costs of upgrading plants could run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on what is required.
State law typically allows utilities to pass such costs through to their customers. At the same time, the Public Service Commission also is raising objections to proposed EPA rules aimed at reducing air pollution --- for similar cost reasons.
In announcing the proposal in March, the EPA said it would “establish a common sense framework.’’ It said billions of fish and other aquatic life are drawn each year into cooling systems at power plants and factories nationally.
Fleischli said the costs to utility customers of the changes would be relatively small, at least in part because companies could spread the costs over as many as 20 years.
“This is a capital investment,’’ he said. “This is not like a one-time expense.’’
But making similar arguments as the utility industry, the Public Service Commission asked the EPA to allow flexibility in meeting the new requirements.
“Electric utilities should be given the flexibility to choose the most efficient, least-cost compliance options to meet environmental goals,’’ the commission said.