Federal Regulations | More for Members
Water is an essential component of electricity production. The production of electricity requires water for cooling, hydropower, and emissions controls. Thermoelectric power plants, including coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear units require large, reliable, abundant, and predictable quantities of cooling water. To serve these needs, water must be withdrawn from various water bodies. The vast majority of those withdrawals are by power plants that return nearly all the withdrawn water to the source.
The electric power industry is partnering with government agencies to minimize adverse environmental impacts and promote the sustainable development of aquatic habitats. We’re continually looking for new and innovative ways to enhance water quality.
While thermoelectric power generation accounts for 39 percent of freshwater withdrawals (132 billion gallons per day), it only accounts for approximately three percent of water consumed. Electricity production accounts for a growing portion of water consumption.
A recent report by The National Energy Technology Laboratory suggests a 32-percent increase by 2030 in the consumption of water by the energy sector. This is mostly attributable to regulatory constraints promoting the use of "recirculating cooling" instead of "once-through cooling" for all new generation facilities. In a once-through system, water is diverted from a waterbody used for cooling and returned to the waterbody. A re-circulating system diverts water from a waterbody and then cools the water in a tower or pond for reuse. In addition to the primary use of water for cooling, the electric power industry also manages cooling ponds, wastewater, wetlands and other water resources.
Under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and other statutes, the federal government regulates nearly all utility water use and discharge. Provisions of the Act that relate to electric utility operations include:
Cooling water: As noted, nearly all power plants withdraw substantial amounts of cooling water, usually from lakes, rivers, estuaries or oceans. This water is used to condense steam and provide cooling for plant generating systems. Facilities use the water from nearby waterbodies for this cooling. EPA regulations that address cooling water designate technology-based performance standards or alternatives that a power plant must adopt to protect fish and other aquatic species and local watersheds. Researchers in the electric power industry, government and academia have been studying the effects of power plant cooling on aquatic ecosystems and have been working to develop strategies for fish protection for more than 30 years. One consistent finding is that the environmental impacts of power plant cooling vary widely from plant to plant and depend largely on local conditions. The best solution for fish and wildlife protection at one locale may not be the best at another.
Process water discharges: The CWA requires permits to control discharges of pollutants, requiring companies to reduce the quantity of such discharges using the technology available to each industry.
National effluent limitations: EEI members are working to avoid, mitigate, and reduce the low-volume wastes (water purification regenerant, boiler blowdown, floor drains, scrubber water, etc.) that result from electricity generation. Regulations are in place that address metal cleaning wastes, transport water, coal pile runoff and other waste streams that are permitted under the national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES).
TMDLs: A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is the amount of a pollutant that a water body can absorb on a daily basis and still meet federal and state water quality standards. Under the CWA, each state must identify and formally list waters that do not meet water quality standards and, when appropriate, develop TMDLs for those waters. The types of pollutants and allowable amount of each pollutant vary for each "impaired" water body. EEI member companies have taken a proactive role working with federal, state and local authorities to accurately and reliably determine appropriate TMDLs for water bodies throughout the country.
Alternate sources of water: Since the generation of electricity is a water-intensive operation, EEI members constantly are looking for alternate sources of water for use in cooling and other operational processes. In many areas of the country, available water resources often are allocated fully among other competing uses. Therefore, it is good business sense to examine the effectiveness of using alternate sources of water operational processes. Currently, EPRI and other organizations are conducting research on the use of treated sewage, non-potable groundwater, industrial effluent and water produced from the oil and gas industries as possible alternate sources of the water needed for electricity production.
Stormwater runoff: Stormwater runoff is caused when rainwater (or other precipitation) runs off construction, industrial and agricultural sites, as well as parking lots, and picks up pollutants on the way to rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Because stormwater pollution is caused by so many different activities, traditional regulatory controls have limited application. Electric utilities must manage runoff from parking lots, rights-of-way, and other sites and obtain stormwater permits if necessary.
Hydropower projects: Hydropower is our nation's largest source of renewable energy. The benefits of hydropower projects are numerous: essentially emissions-free, domestic energy; fish and wildlife habitat and water to help sustain fisheries and wildlife; flood control; drinking water and irrigation water; and recreation. Many dams are undergoing, or soon will undergo, relicensing. As part of the relicensing process, agencies often request or require project owners to conduct corollary environmental upgrades such as the protection of surrounding land, the integration of fish ladders or the construction of recreational facilities. In addition, utilities typically provide other benefits to help ensure that the projects are in the overall public interest.
Through the Utility Water Act Group (UWAG), other organizations and their own programs, EEI members are addressing several key issues related to water resource management. For example, in concert with DOE and private research organizations, companies are exploring non-traditional sources of water for the industry, such as innovative water reuse and recovery designs, advanced cooling technologies and advanced power systems that are more water efficient.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 instructs DOE to address issues related to adequate water supplies, optimal management, efficient use of water and efficient use of energy. DOE is carrying out an integrated RD&D effort that cuts across its coal, oil and natural gas programs to focus specifically on the nexus between energy and water.
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