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Power Hydro Threat Drought*

Sep 26, 2002

Drought threatens power

Low water levels cause concern at electric plants




DEVASTATING EFFECT: Drought is deadly for songbirds and other wildlife. Page F1.

Among those smiling about the forecast for rain over the next few days are utility-company managers.

That's because the drought could shut down some electric generating plants if it continues to drop lake and stream levels in central Virginia.

Two months ago, Dominion Virginia Power said that dropping water levels in Lake Anna, which supplies cooling water to the company's North Anna nuclear power station, had become a concern.

But the drought threatens other power plants as well. Virginia Power is already unable to make electricity at Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids, N.C., be cause of low water flows on the Roanoke River.

To the west, American Electric Power has cut the flow of water through its hydroelectric dam at Smith Mountain Lake. And in Halifax County, where Virginia Power and the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative co-own and operate the coal-fired Clover Power Station, withdrawals of cooling water from the river are in jeopardy because of reduced flows.

"Some days we've not been able to take water out," Virginia Power spokesman Dan Genest said.

If the Clover plant were forced to shut down, it would be a bigger blow for ODEC, which supplies power to the state's rural electric cooperatives, than to Virginia Power, ODEC spokesman John Lee said. The Clover plant is the jewel in ODEC's generation crown, providing much of its electricity, but it is only one of many plants owned by Virginia Power.

"We're concerned, but we're not blowing up the life rafts yet," Lee said. The Clover plant has a storage pond that contains about a 30-day supply of water. Also, ODEC and Virginia Power are working with the Department of Environmental Quality and others to see if the state might allow the plant to operate at lower river levels.

If the Clover plant were lost to the drought, the utilities could replace its electricity by going to the interstate wholesale energy markets. Lee said ODEC would prefer not to expose its customers to the volatility of the energy markets, but, if it has to, electricity prices are traditionally lower in the fall.

ODEC also owns a portion of Virginia Power's North Anna nuclear plant. If the utilities were forced to go to the open market to buy power to replace either coal or nuclear generation, any higher costs of wholesale power would be passed through to retail customers.

Virginia Power's Genest said his company could also face problems operating its plant at Bremo Bluff on the James River if the drought continues. Water levels there have not fallen below a 400 cubic feet per second threshold yet, he said.

At the North Anna plant, lake levels are dropping around a tenth of a foot per week, and the lake currently stands at 245.4 feet above sea level, Genest said. Once the lake reaches a 244-foot level - in about four months at the current level of decline - the plant's emergency plan calls for the nuclear units to be shut down to avoid excessive vibration of its water pumps.

The company is looking at ways it could extend water-intake pipes or pumps farther into the lake so the plant could operate down to a 242-foot lake level, Genest said.

Contact Greg Edwards at (804) 649-6390 or gedwards@timesdispatch.com

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