Drought in US southeast provokes power plant cutbacks

Drought conditions persist in the Southeast causing hydroelectric power plants to cease operations and coal-fired plants to be monitored closely. Georgia Power is not operating any of its hydro plants and Alabama Power has had to cut back electricity generation from its hydroelectric power plants by 70%.

Aug 2nd, 2000

Ann de Rouffignac

Low river and lake water levels in the US Southeast have prompted electric utilities to cut production of hydroelectric power and even reduce output from certain coal plants that depend on river water for cooling. Meanwhile, some utilities have turned to more expensive purchased power and simple cycle gas plants for replacement electricity.

Forecasters predict the drought that has plagued the Southeast for a third year will not to go away any time soon.

�The drought will be prolonged and no lasting relief is in the forecast,� says Doug Marsano, consultant with American Water Works Association in Denver.

Other weather experts agree.

�There are drought conditions in Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia,� says Mike Hayes, climate impact specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, Lincoln, Neb. �The multiyear drought in Georgia could force problems. The longer it lasts the more problems will come out that we hadn�t heard of before.�

With respect to power plants, the most obvious impact is on hydroelectric plants, but coal and gas plants that depend on rivers and lakes for cooling are also affected. Georgia Power Co. is not operating any of its hydroelectric plants that normally provide a little less than 3% of its electricity.

Georgia Power�s coal-fired Plant Mitchell continues to be of concern, says John Sell, spokesman for Georgia Power, a unit of Southern Co. The Flint River almost dropped below the in-take structure for the plant. And coal plants use a lot of water.

�We�ve had some recent rains,� says Sell. �But we continue to watch it very closely and remain very concerned.�

Another Georgia power coal plant remains on a system of capped generation because of the drought. Power output from the coal-fired Plant Yates which uses water from the Chatahoochie River must vary with the level of the river, says Sell.

�The capped generation is an ongoing situation,� says Sell.

Sell would not say how many megawatts, if any at this time, Plant Yates had to cut back.

Alabama Power Co. has had to cut back electricity generation from its hydroelectric power plants by 70%, says Darya Braggs, spokeswoman for Alabama Power, also a Southern Co. unit.

�The drought has had quite an impact on us,� she says.

Despite the drought, Georgia Power expects to operate its hydroelectric plants during the August peak, says Sell. Since the operation of the hydro plants will be near the close of the hot summer season, the company feels more comfortable operating them at that time, he says.

The North American Electric Reliability Council warned as early as May in its outlook for the summer that drought conditions could affect power output in the southeast.

Because of the heat and the drought, Georgia Power has had to purchase additional power on the wholesale market and run its gas combustion turbines that don�t require as much cooling water as coal plants or combined-cycle gas plants. The company filed an application with Georgia Public Service Commission last week to recover an additional $98.8 million in fuel expenses from using combustion turbines and to recover the cost of purchased power resulting from the hot dry conditions.

The entire states of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and parts of Mississippi and Louisiana have been declared a drought area by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

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