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PORT FOURCHON, LA - MAY 25:  A BP cleanup crew picks up oil from a beach on May 25, 2010 at Port Fourchon, Louisiana. As BP prepares to try and stop the oil leak with a "top kill" method, the Louisiana coastline is reeling from the effects of the continued gusher.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A BP cleanup crew picks up oil from a beach on May 25 at Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

Photograph by John Moore, Getty Images

An oil boom at the James F. Crist Generating Plant in Pensacola, Florida. The plant is located in northeast Pensacola at the mouth of Escambia River on Governor's Bayou. The oil spill has the potential to impact several electric power generation facilities in the region. A number of power plants have been identified as drawing cooling water directly from the Gulf of Mexico or adjacent water sources. If the water supply for these facilities becomes contaminated with oil, cooling water systems could be damaged.

Courtesy Gulf Power

By Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic News

Published May 27, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Even before the big Deepwater Horizon spill, an oil boom stretched across the intake canal at the Anclote power plant near Holiday, Florida, just east of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s there to keep the oil in, should there be any accidental spill at the oil-fired electricity station. But now it’s part of Progress Energy’s defense plan for keeping the oil out.

The Anclote facility, which provides electricity to about 600,000 households north of Tampa-St. Petersburg, is just one of at least six power stations along the Gulf Coast that could be at risk from the crude spreading out from BP’s wrecked well site.

Progress Energy spokesman Scott Sutton emphasized that the current forecasts are for the strong loop current to carry oil south and away from its facilities in central Florida. But given the unpredictable Gulf weather, the size of the spill and electricity plant reliance on water, Progress has a team of environmental and systems experts meeting daily to track the spill’s progress and plan how to protect its power stations.

“We can’t wait until we physically see oil and say, ‘What do we do now?’ ” Sutton said. “It would take a pretty severe wind storm to push it this way, but obviously, anything weather-dependent is pretty unpredictable.”

Power’s thirst for water

All power plants that use steam to turn turbines to produce electricity rely on water for cooling, regardless of the fuel source—coal, nuclear, natural gas or oil. (In fact, production of electric power represents one of the largest uses of water worldwide.)

(Related: "Nuclear Reactors, Dams at Risk Due to Global Warming.")

In its May 12 situation report on the BP oil spill, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) noted that there was a risk to “a number of power plants” that draw cooling water directly from the Gulf of Mexico or adjacent salt water sources. “If the water supply for these facilities becomes contaminated with oil, cooling water systems could be damaged,” the report said.  It’s just one of many risks to business and infrastructure in the Gulf that could long persist even after the flow of oil is stopped.

(Related: Coast Pipelines Face Damage as Gulf Oil Eats Marshes?)

Maura McGillicuddy, a DOE communications specialist, said the department would not release a list of the threatened power plants “due to market sensitivities and security concerns.” But the names of all U.S. thermal power plants and their cooling water sources are readily available in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual electric generator database.

One of the facilities closest to the spill site is Southern Company’s Watson coal power plant on the Back Bay of Biloxi, Mississippi. The plant suffered significant flooding damage in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005; one major unit was closed for 46 days, and another was not restored for nearly four months. . But Michael Harvey, a compliance and support manager with Southern’s Mississippi Power unit, says that the company is confident it can protect Watson from oil encroachment with diversion booms and skimmers. “We daily evaluate the progress, and at this point we’re still evaluating,” Harvey said. “But we don’t feel there’s a threat to this facility.”

Farther east, on the Florida panhandle, Southern Company’s Gulf Power unit has put up precautionary oil booms at its coal-powered Crist plant off the Escambia River near Pensacola—even though it draws water upstream from the Gulf of Mexico. And booms are on standby at two other coal plants that don’t draw directly from the Gulf: the Scholz plant on the Apalachicola River in Sneads and the Smith plant on the North Bay in Southport. Jeff Rogers, a Gulf Power spokesman, said the company has also made a contingency plan for the coal deliveries it usually receives by barge from the Mississippi River. If necessary, the barges will be diverted to avoid the oil-saturated Gulf near Louisiana. That would mean the barges would travel a more complicated route, diverting from the Mississippi onto the Tennessee River, then the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to the Tombigbee River, then the Mobile River to Mobile Bay, then east on the Intercoastal Waterway to Pensacola Bay.

On Florida’s west coast, Progress Energy has two facilities in addition to its Anclote plant that draw water from the Gulf of Mexico or adjacent water through intake canals. They are its Bartow natural gas power plant in St. Petersburg, which draws from Tampa Bay, and its huge Crystal River energy complex in Citrus County, which has four coal units and a nuclear generating station (now down for maintenance). The plants at Crystal River, which draw directly from the Gulf like Anclote, serve half of the company’s 1.6 million Florida customers. Officials at TECO Energy’s Big Bend coal plant, also on Tampa Bay, likewise are monitoring the oil spill situation closely, even though forecasts call for the oil to bypass the area, says spokesman Rick Morera.

Pom-pom booms and air barriers

In addition to oil boom, Progress has lined up other protective measures, because so much of the oil from the BP spill appears to be suspended beneath the surface of the water.  Among the options for detection and monitoring are pom-pom booms, floats with long pieces of absorbent material to capture oil or tar balls under water. Plant officials would be able to gauge from contamination of those booms whether further steps are needed to keep oil from entering the plant and contaminating the equipment. If needed, Sutton also said the company could deploy directional booms, skimmers, or an air current barrier; hoses would be placed underwater to create a wall of air bubbles in an effort to keep oil from entering the canal.

Even if the oil encroachment were so great that the plants would have to shut down to avoid contamination, said Sutton, Progress would be able to keep the lights on for its customers. The company anticipates that its inland power plants would keep running, and it has the option of purchasing power from other generators.

Of course, even if electricity keeps flowing, there could be impacts on homes and businesses. For example, several power plants shut down or reduced output in the summer and fall of 2007 because they couldn’t draw enough cooling water due to severe drought in the southeastern United States. According to a report by DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to purchase

electricity on the open market at an increased cost, and then passed those costs along to its customers.

Water expert Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California, said he has not heard of another case where a large oil spill threatened the cooling water supply for multiple power stations. “But just about everything about this spill is unprecedented,” he said. Still, he said, the spill underscores a point he has long been making. “We’ve ignored the connections between energy and water for far too long,” he said. “And as our water shortages, and this crisis in the Gulf show us, we can’t ignore those connections any longer.”

(See pictures of tar balls and a dead dolphin on the Gulf Coast.)

Editor's note: This story was updated with new information from Gulf Power indicating that barge diversions from the Mississippi River had not been implemented. A previous version of the story said the barge traffic already had been diverted.

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