SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Water & Energy at a Crossroads


Hiwasee Lake-GA boat docksDuring the summer of 2007, the Southeast experienced one of its worst droughts in over a century, aggravating state water wars and prompting crisis actions to conserve limited supplies. For many parts of our region, severe droughts continued to occur with 2016 being a particularly dry year, revealing a vulnerable and unreliable electricity system. Existing power plants in the region, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama along the Tennessee River, have repeatedly had to reduce production due to high water temperatures in the bodies of water required for cooling as well as reduced river flows, which eventually prompted TVA to install new cooling technologies to help relieve this situation.

Scientists predict that unless policies to lower carbon pollution are enacted, continued global warming will lead to more severe and long-lasting drought conditions. Poor energy choices made today can affect our region’s ability to cope with limited water supplies in the future. A regional example is Southern Company’s proposal to build two more extremely water-intensive nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia along the Savannah River, furthering threatening an already overly-stressed and highly utilized water resource. This type of backward thinking earned it a spot three years in a row on the Georgia Water Coalition’s infamous “Dirty Dozen” list — most recently in October 2014.

A host of energy projects have been selected year after year by the Georgia Water Coalition, of which SACE is an active member, for their infamous, “Dirty Dozen” report of worst offenders to Georgia’s waterways. The 2016 Dirty Dozen report has 8 of the 12 culprits from the energy sector; see SACE’s media statement here. Find all the Dirty Dozen reports here.

SACE and our partners are very concerned about the impacts Vogtle has on the Savannah River, both in terms of water quantity and quality. The situation will only get worse if the two new Vogtle reactors begin operating, currently estimated for the end of 2017 and 2018 respectively. We filed comments with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) in March 2014 opposing the massive draft surface water withdrawal permit for the new reactors and requesting a public hearing. We were successful and a public hearing was held in May. Find all our comments and more in our blog post here. Unfortunately, EPD disregarded the public’s concerns despite receiving over 250 comments, the majority of which urged for EPD to deny or at least delay issuance of the permit. The agency issued the final permit on December 5, 2014 and the State of South Carolina initially challenged the permit, but eventually withdrew and the permit was finalized.

In mid-January 2015, EPD issued a draft surface water discharge permit (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or “NPDES”) for review and held a public hearing in Augusta on March 3 with public comments due March 20. SACE and our allies are very concerned about the impacts this could have on the already imperiled Savannah River, the 3rd most toxic river in the U.S. Find SACE’s comments from the March 3rd hearing here and our full comments filed with EPD on March 20 here. Despite all the objections, EPD issued the final permit in late September 2015.

Unfortunately bad choices for our water future continue to be made in Georgia. Georgia Power is exploring building two more reactors along the Chattahoochee River, which in 2016 was designated as America’s Most Endangered River and the PSC approved $99 million could be spent to explore what we already know is an unsuitable site. This potential water-guzzling proposal landed on the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2016 Dirty Dozen list of offenders.

The electric industry is a leading water user in many Southern states, and nuclear power plants are the highest water consumers among all energy technologies. Traditional power plants already degrade water quality (e.g. increasing thermal pollution, emitting chemicals and heavy metals) and reduce water availability. Many power plants compete for water with other important uses vital to our region’s economy and quality of life: drinking water supply, agriculture, industry, fishing, and recreational opportunities. Less water used for power generation translates into more water for other life-dependent and life-enhancing uses.