Water consumption used as a weapon against coal plants
Duke Energy has a plan to increase the capacity of its Cliffside facility located in Rutherford County, NC. The Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte recently hosted a public meeting to discuss the expansion plans. According to Drought fires up foes of coal plant: Duke Energy’s plans to expand criticized in view of climate change published on October 17 in the Charlotte Observer (note: this publication moves articles to archives after about 2 weeks), more than 200 people attended the gathering and 44 of them spoke during the meeting.
Part of the concern expressed was the fact that the expanded plant would produce more than twice as much CO2 as the existing plant, though the amount of regulated emissions would actually decrease. The N. C. Division of Air Quality, like many other regulatory bodies in the US does not yet consider CO2 to be pollution; that allowed them to make a determination a couple of weeks ago claiming that the expansion would not harm the state’s air quality.
The other issue that became a topic of conversation and contention was the plant’s projected water use. Though it would require 88% less cooling water flow from the Broad River, it would increase the rate of evaporative heat loss to 21 million gallons of water per day.
The way that Duke will accomplish that will be to employ cooling towers instead of the existing once through system that is used for the old units 1-4 at the facility. Those units are scheduled for decommissioning once the new plant is ready for operation. You can find out more of the technical details by visiting Duke’s Q&A page about Cliffside at
Many people in the electric power industry are very familiar with the use of cooling towers as a means of reducing the thermal discharges to sensitive bodies of water. However, that advantage comes with a price that some in drought prone communities are not willing to spend – evaporative cooling towers use prodigious volumes of fresh water. In many cases, the water comes from the same source as the community drinking water, either the local aquifer or a surface body like a river or a lake. North Carolina has been experiencing drought conditions in many parts of the state for several years; the plant’s water consumption was a major source of opposition during the reported meeting.
The evaporation process can also put enough moisture into the air to cause local climate changes – as we all know, it is not the heat, but the humidity that often matters. At some plants on certain days, the cooling tower directly causes a local fog bank that can interfere with traffic flow.
For nukes the lesson is important – when people in the local area want weapons to use in their battle against a power plant, water use and local climate change can become contentious issues that slow projects, increase costs, and may even be the tilting point that shifts the balance of power from the developer to the opposition.