Report: Heat and droughts could contribute to blackouts

The national advocacy group River Network released a report Thursday arguing that electricity production methods in Georgia and Alabama are likely to lead to water shortages, brownouts or blackouts during periods of high summer temperatures such as those predicted for this weekend.

However, the report does not offer details to demonstrate that power shortages are any more likely this summer than in previous hot, dry years.

The River Network report looks at the water footprint of various power plant types, finding that coal-fired power plants, such as Plant Scherer north of Macon, are among the greatest water users.

In a telephone briefing about the report, University of Georgia hydrology professor Todd Rasmussen said Georgia soils and streams are at or below record dry levels, much worse than this time last year.

He said the drought is expected to worsen through September and is more likely than last year to affect city water supplies and water availability for power plants.

So far this year, Middle Georgia has been in an “exceptional drought,” the worst drought category, longer than any other part of the Southeast. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the area of the state suffering “exceptional drought” conditions is expanding.

The River Network report recommends that Georgia Power, Alabama Power and other power companies shutter aging coal plants and develop wind and photovoltaic solar technologies instead.

Power plants use fresh water for cooling their equipment. But when high temperatures and low rainfall leave waterways low, power plants can’t withdraw as much water. This can limit their operations during the period of greatest demand, potentially causing some customers to lose power.

Power plants can also cause fish kills and toxic algae blooms if they release superheated water into low-flow waterways, and Rasmussen said those have already happened in Georgia this summer.

A report released last fall by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Georgia is one of eight states that consume the largest amount of freshwater per unit of electricity generated.

Georgia Power officials said this is probably because the state has many power plants, including Plant Scherer, that recirculate their cooling water. Recirculation reduces the problem of superheated water releases, but it also consumes more water.

Rasmussen noted that conservation measures such as reduced outdoor watering saves water twice, once on the ground and again at the power plant, which provides the energy to run the pumps at homes and water plants.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.