Southern Company considers the impact of the system’s operations on water quality and availability, focusing on researching, developing and evaluating innovative technologies that address industry needs, while providing benefits to customers and the environment.
Southern Company is committed to responsible use and protection of all natural resources, including water, by meeting or surpassing all environmental laws and regulations. Water testing is a regular activity in the lakes at our hydroelectric plants. We engage communities and relevant stakeholders to address specific water challenges at local levels and practice water stewardship beyond the system’s facilities.
Water in Power Production
Electricity generation requires large amounts of water to produce steam, remove heat or power hydroelectric turbines. Some of the water naturally evaporates — what you see rising out of the large cooling towers at steam power plants is water vapor. Some of the water at power plants is cooled and reused. Most is returned to its source.
In 2016, the system reduced surface water withdrawal by 21 percent compared to 2015. Over the past six years, approximately 93 percent of the water withdrawn has been immediately returned to the source, where it is available for downstream use.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) final rule establishing standards for reducing effects on fish and other aquatic life caused by new and existing cooling water intake structures at existing power plants and manufacturing facilities became effective in October 2014. Implementation of the rule will be based on site-specific factors.
Southern Company supports reasonable regulations that consider the great variation of impacts from plant to plant. The company continues to research technologies, including fish-return systems and "fish-friendly" or modified traveling screens, to minimize the impact of power plant intake structures on aquatic life.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) controls water quality by regulating point source discharges into U.S. waterways. Southern Company system power plants have water discharge permits for pH, suspended solids, oil and grease, chlorine, temperature, iron and other parameters. Typical permitted discharges include cooling water, ash ponds, coal pile runoff ponds, metal cleaning waste ponds, sump overflows and oil/water separators. These points are monitored or sampled periodically in accordance with permit requirements.
Certain EPA regulations, called effluent guidelines, address materials discharged by thermoelectric power plants. EPA published revisions to the steam electric effluent guidelines in November 2015 regulating wastewater discharges primarily associated with coal combustion byproducts, such as coal ash and scrubber wastewaters. The revised limits and compliance dates will be incorporated into renewals of NPDES permits. Southern Company seeks to ensure compliance in the most cost-effective and efficient manner, while providing continued protection of water quality and aquatic resources.
Hydropower remains one of the cleanest, most environmentally safe and affordable sources of energy. Hydropower makes up about 6 percent of Southern Company system generation capacity. The system's 33 hydroelectric facilities provide more than 200,000 acres of lakes and more than 5,000 miles of shoreline for use by the general public.