Monday, January 3, 2011

Waste Heat from Power Plants:

Not a Waste to a Manatee!

A recent news item about manatees seeking out the warm-water discharges from Florida power plants during the recent cold weather reminded me that the thermal discharges from power plants (fossil and nuclear), which have gotten a bad rap most of the time, actually have some benefits. The manatees certainly seem to think so!

This news comes not long after the owners of Oyster Creek announced that they will shut down that unit, the oldest operating nuclear plant in the U.S., in 10 years rather than pay for cooling towers, as the state of New Jersey is demanding. Other plants are facing the same pressures.

Our friends the manatees remind us that one person's trash can be another person's treasure. Or more precisely, in this case, one creature's waste heat can be another creature's salvation. While plants in New Jersey and Florida are in very different climatic areas, it strikes me that, in any such situation, all parties involved should look for a win-win wherever possible. This has happened at plants in the south, where catfish and shrimp are raised commercially in power plant discharge canals, truly turning waste into income. (I was going to say turning waste into cold cash, but the metaphor doesn't quite work.)

Could that be done farther north? I don't know. Aquaculture isn't my specialty. And I am sure that some will argue that the waste heat still modifies the natural environment. (And that warming the manatees changes their natural lifestyle.) But the hard truth is that we need energy and we need food, and we have been modifying the environment ever since we learned to harness fire and farm the land. While we've made mistakes along the way, we've learned from them. Obviously, we need to consider what we displace, and one solution may not work everywhere, but if there are places where we can use plant discharges to save endangered animals or to feed the population, it sounds to me like we've got a win-win.



  1. I've long had fantasies about setting up a small modular reactor in the great white north (near Duluth, say), and using the "waste" heat to heat houses nearby as well as an aquaponics system. The free heat and cheap electricity would be a great way to turn cheap corn into fresh veggies and tasty fish.


    I think I need to win the lotto a couple of times first.

  2. It sounds like a good opportunity. As you point out, we really have no idea what will happen if we dump heat into a body of water, creating a micro-ecosystem. Ecology doesn't particularly lend itself to controlled experiments, so I think computer simulations might play an important role here. It's not my field in particular, but computational biology (particularly population dynamics) seems applicable. A computer model can isolate the main risks to an ecosystem before any plant is built. It would be interesting to see if models can recreate/predict the trends in manatee and other populations in Florida.

    If this approach turns out to be successful we would be in a position to make informed decisions about particular ecosystems, and whether it is responsible to deliberately alter them.

  3. I thought the same thing when I was visiting Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, FL. If there were not external sources providing warm water for these manatees how many would we have today?

    P.S. Great blog, Gail!

  4. Another thing to consider with regard to plants that have been operating as long as Oyster Creek is that their discharge is now part of the existing environment. The whole nearby ecosystem is used to having that warmer water around - when it disappears for good, there will another major environmental change.

    There is also no guarantee that the environmental effect of cooling towers will be any better for the local environment - the effects would simply be different, with the judgement of better depending on the specific impact being reviewed.