Public water, private profit: Power companies suck it up

The drought is making us statistic savvy. We know that the water supply level was at 53.4 percent, that we used 6.905 million gallons last Sunday, and that Martha Jefferson Hospital is the biggest water user in the city (UVA's hospital is technically in the county).

Here's another eye-popping statistic to add to the mix: 83 percent of all water withdrawals in the state are used for power generation.

Of the 8.3 billion gallons of water withdrawn each day in Virginia, 6.9 billion go to make electricity, according to the 2001 water resources report from the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ.

Those numbers are fueling critics of the three new power plants approved for Central Virginia, particularly Tenaska in Fluvanna, which, along with a sister plant in Buckingham, has state approval to draw, at peak times, 17 million gallons a day from the James River.

Statistics can be misleading, cautions Terry Wagner, director of the DEQ's office of water resource management. For example, while the top water user in the state, Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna Nuclear Power Plant, withdraws 2.048 billion gallons of water a day, "it's not actually water used," says Wagner. "The difference is that 85 to 90 percent of the water is returned to the stream or a lake."

That knocks North Anna's consumption down to a still-staggering 204 million gallons a day from the shrinking Lake Anna.

Wagner says that power plant water use is far from equal, depending on the technology used. And the water usage for post-deregulation plants, says Wagner, "is all over the board."

Usage is all over the board even within Fluvanna. The new Tenaska plant will draw an average 6 million gallons a day, while the recently approved CPV plant near Lake Monticello will withdraw just 91,000 gallons a day.

Wagner contrasts the proposed new plants with existing power plants. The oldies withdraw a large amount of water for cooling, consume a small percentage, and then discharge most of the water back to the source.

In contrast, newer plants have a smaller withdrawal, consume more of what they do withdraw, and thus have a smaller discharge.

"Compared to the large fossil fuel plants," says Wagner, "the newer ones have virtually no withdrawal."

That news doesn't necessarily comfort Citizens Against Power Plants spokesperson Maggie Cagnina, who lives in Fluvanna and decries public water going for free to Tenaska.

"That's one of the worst things," she says. "Tenaska gets all this water at no cost except for building the pipe while water prices are skyrocketing."

Tenaska won't be able to draw from the James during periods of low flow. The DEQ looks at the 100-year flow record to determine the magic cut-off number, says Wagner.

And he says the drought isn't why there are restrictions on water permits for power plants. "Water consumption is a major concern now, drought or no."

Certainly it's a concern to Fluvanna anti-power plant activists like Cagnina. "It's all of our water," she says, mentioning Fluvanna's 200 dry wells and the aquifers that are drying up. And she doesn't understand why Richmond isn't getting more involved, since Tenaska will be using the same water source as Richmond, which guzzles 100 million gallons of water a day from the James.

Cagnina is also worried about Fluvanna County tapping into the Tenaska water pipeline from the James, which is big enough to take out 16 million gallons a day, further fueling growth. "We have a long running dispute over public water," she says.

Fluvanna is soon to be home to two new power plants, but the water usage of the second, CPV, a subsidiary of Competitive Power Ventures in Maryland, is less of a concern, even for Cagnina.

CPV uses a more expensive technology called dry cooling that will require only 91,000 gallons of water a day, a fraction of what Tenaska will need. And of that, 62,000 gallons will return to its water supply source, the Rivanna River. And unlike Tenaska, CPV will purchase its water from Aquasource, the water company that serves Lake Monticello.

Louisa County will be home to Central Virginia's third power plant. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative has plans to construct a plant near the Albemarle line. The facility will buy and use 200,000 gallons a day from Louisa County's Bowlers Mill Reservoir.

Since Virginia deregulated generation of electric energy on January 1, 2002, the state has become a hotbed of companies looking to sell electricity on the competitive market. At one time, it looked like 30 new power plants could enter the market yet another concern for the citizens of a drought-stricken state.

But the number of applications is down to 15, and not all of those may be built, according to the State Corporation Commission, which issues permits for power plants. "There's a two-year limit on the permit," in which the company has to build, says Ken Schrad at the SCC.

And while the Commonwealth could be flooded with power plants, at present, Schrad says, Virginia imports more power than it exports. Nor is the additional power from the new plants necessarily going to stay in the state. "They're being built for the competitive market," says Schrad, "not Virginia."

So. Power generated with free water by plants like Tenaska can be sold out of state to the highest bidder. "Everybody in the state," points out Wagner, "uses electricity," As do people in other states, and they could be the ultimate beneficiaries of Virginia's water resources.


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