Gulf Power Plants Keep Close Watch on Oil Spill

Seawater-reliant power plants on the Gulf Coast prepare to protect their cooling sources

Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

26 May 2010—As oil from the massive Deepwater Horizon slick in the Gulf of Mexico laps at Louisiana’s shores and tar balls wash up on beaches in the Florida Keys, saltwater-dependent power plants on the Gulf Coast prepare for the worst.

”We’ve been monitoring the spill since it began,” says Suzanne Grant, a spokesperson for Progress Energy Florida, which runs four power plants on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Three of the plants pump in water from the Gulf to cool their turbines. ”The good news is that forecast models continue to indicate it’s highly unlikely the slick will reach our coastal plants, but we’re putting an action plan in place just in case,” Grant says.

Nineteen thermoelectric power plants on the coasts of Florida, Mississippi, and Texas suck in a total of 51 billion liters of seawater per day, according to a 2005 survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The water piped into a plant is directed through thousands of metal tubes inside a condenser, where it cools and condenses steam from the plant’s turbines. The condensed steam gets pumped back to the boiler to drive the turbine, and the heated saltwater flows back into the sea.

Energy companies operating the plants worry that if a slick spreads to their intake canals, oil could get into the cooling machinery and potentially shut down the plant. However, they say they have taken enough precautions so that oil contamination likely won’t be an issue.

”We don’t anticipate this is going to be a problem, but we’ve got a lot of booms we can deploy if we need them,” says Rick Morera, a spokesperson for Tampa Electric, which owns Big Bend Power Station on the coast of Tampa Bay. Many plants already have boom systems in place. The floating absorbent tubes prevent oil from seeping into the bay on the rare chance a spill occurs at a plant. But they would work just as well to keep oil out. Grant says Progress Energy Florida is working with an oil-spill response contractor to plan additional precautions should oil get past the boom barriers.

Tampa Bay Water, which runs a seawater desalination plant next to Big Bend, is also keeping a close watch on the Deepwater Horizon slick. The company draws in used seawater from Big Bend and says it would likely stop operations if a spill became a real threat. ”Our plan of attack would be to shut down our valves that pull in raw water from the power plant,” says Chuck Cardon, director of operations and facilities. He says a shutdown would not impact Tampa’s water supply, as the city has enough sources of ground and surface water to make up for the temporary loss.

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