During a dedication ceremony Tuesday morning, the company’s guests were able to tour the new facility and see how Georgia Power is using a widespread approach to use less water, reuse more water and find environmentally safe ways to dispose of waste and pollutants.
Program Manager Richard Breckenridge, who works for the Electric Power Research Institute, said the water used to generate steam is just the beginning. Since the water used in the turbines is purified to a high quality, Georgia Power wants to recover as much as possible.
“The majority of water is used for cooling. What we do is, since it took so much energy and time and effort and technology to get that high purity water and that steam cycle, we want to condense that steam and reuse it so that high-purity loop, that’s a closed loop,” he said. “Then for cooling we need large, vast quantities of cooling water that would go in, help condense that steam, capture it, reuse it and then to exhaust the heat, so you can now cool the water to reuse the water.”
One of the projects Plant Bowen is testing involves cooling and condensation systems within the cooling towers themselves. Called a thermosyphon cooler, the system pre-cools water before it enters the cooling tower in order to conserve water and reduce the amount lost to evaporation. Tuesday morning, when the system was using only cold air, no whisps of steam left the experimental tower as it ran.
Breckenridge emphasized that while power plants draw large quantities of water from local sources, they end up consuming a much smaller amount.
“Power plants, as a whole, withdraw more water than any other industry in the United States, including agriculture. Forty percent, two-fifths, of freshwater withdrawal is used for thermoelectric generation,” he said. “... So these billions of [gallons of] water that’s used today is for electrical generation. However, power plants do not consume water like agriculture.
“When you plant crops, you put that water in the ground and it’s lost. The majority of power plants return the water. A large percent of the water drawn out of the Etowah River returns to the Etowah River, and so, as a whole, 3 percent of freshwater is consumed making electricity.”
Other potential projects the research center could tackle includes extracting water created when coal is burned. Since coal contains hydrogen, Breckenridge said, there is a possibility the power plant could produce more water through the combustion process.
Another result of combustion, however, are emissions containing pollutants, which has been the focus of legislation on a national level. In order to meet new federal standards, Georgia Power has installed a system of scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and other fine particles and are in the process of installing equipment to reduce mercury emissions. In the case of the scrubbers, such efforts involve using a mixture of water and limestone to capture the particles. Finding ways to recycle that water and dispose of the pollutants it contains is an additional priority for the new research center.
In a steel-frame building located near the plant’s gypsum warehouse, Georgia Power is slowly assembling a variety of machines, filters, presses and sludge tanks to find the best way to separate contaminant particles from the water and press those particles into a dry cube that can be put in a landfill. In a separate laboratory, scientists working for the Southern Research Institute perform experiments to determine how much the dried material will seep out when placed in a landfill. They start with small, three-day experiments on a lab table before moving to a lysimeter — a multi-section metal column more than a story tall — that simulates real-life conditions in a landfill over a year.
The center’s creation dates back as far as 2010, when Plant Bowen began looking at opportunities to operate more efficiently, said Georgia Power Senior Media Relations Strategist Brian Green. Cassie Willingham, who works in the engineering group at Plant Bowen, explained the project grew from that initial exploration.
“But they went ... across the world talking to different vendors, trying to identify different technologies that we wanted to incorporate in different areas. As you mentioned, we use water in different areas and auxiliary systems in the plants. We wanted to look at multiple areas where we can eventually reduce water consumption and reuse it. So that phase zero report was really why it started and what the basis for all the projects we have going on today,” she said.
In another sense, Willingham continued, Georgia Power is looking ahead and attempting to get in front of any future legislation or new guidelines on water use.
“We have one of the last very active research and development groups in Southern Company, so they’re constantly trying to do proactive research on upcoming, I guess, predicted regulations,” she said. “So water — air’s been the topic of regulations for the past several years, so now we’re thinking it’s going to be moving toward water.
“So now we’re going to do the research now before these regulations come out and tell us we have to do this by the state. We’re going to know what to do, what works, what doesn’t, what’s more cost effective. So we’re fortunate to have that goup that’s kind of led this effort to get us to this point with our research. They did the same thing before we installed the scrubbers.”
Breckenridge said the entire research center would likely be online by the end of 2014. Although he could not estimate the total investment, he believed the infrastructure investment came to approximately $12 million. As he spoke about the laboratory’s efforts to measure leaching in landfills, he said projects were spread throughout the entire plant.
“This is just one of the numerous things going on in this plant that’s involved in the Water Research Center. So the Water Research Center is a concept. It’s more than just one place. Plant Bowen is the laboratory for that entire center and that collaboration. So it’s a collaboration of ideas, it’s a collaboration of funders, it’s a collaboration of industry concepts of all saving water,” he said.
During the dedication, Georgia Power President and CEO Paul Bowers said Plant Bowen was the right place for the investment and he believed it was “absolutely the right thing to do” for both the industry and the company’s customers.
For Tim Banks, the plant’s manager, he said it was a source of pride for Plant Bowen to be working on research that could later be used across the industry.
“You can’t be in this business long — and I’ve been doing it for 40 years — you can’t be in this business long without being extremely proud of what you do. In fact, it becomes a mission. you recognize the important role electricity plays in economic development of communities, even this country. But fundamentally, hope you realize, that the product that we generate provide the lifestyle for this country. It’s a pretty big deal and we take a great amount of pride in what we do,” he said.