A reliable water source is essential to producing power at our hydroelectric and thermal generating plants. We carefully manage our water resources by seeking responsible and secure supply options, working to conserve water where we can and ensuring we maintain water quality, especially where water is used and then returned to the environment. For our hydro plants, water is the fuel that operates plant turbines to produce electricity. At thermal plants, we use water to produce steam and to cool equipment. Cooling makes up greater than 95 percent of a thermal power plant’s water needs, depending on specific plant operations.
Thermal plants generally use one of two cooling options that are each uniquely designed for optimal heat transfer to water. This allows the plants to operate at maximum efficiency and to generate the most electricity possible from the fuel source.
Water is taken from a river, lake or reservoir and used to cool and condense the steam that drives turbines to produce electricity. Water is then returned to the river, lake or reservoir in accordance with all state and federal permits or requirements and in a condition that protects water quality for human use and the environment. Nearly all of Xcel Energy’s thermal generating plants in the Upper Midwest and one plant in Colorado (Valmont plant) use open-loop cooling also referred to as once-through cooling.
Water runs through towers to cool and condense the steam used to drive turbines to produce electricity. Cooling towers require relatively low water volumes to operate efficiently. They are operated to minimize water withdrawals by reusing water several times in the cooling water system, and can also provide recycled water for other plant operations. Nearly all of Xcel Energy’s thermal generating plants in Colorado, Texas and New Mexico and one plant in Minnesota (Sherburne County) use closed-loop cooling. A portion of the water in closed-loop cooling systems may be returned to the river, lake or reservoir in accordance with all state and federal permits or requirements. Water may also be stored in evaporation ponds.
There are several advanced closed-loop cooling technologies that can be built into new thermal plants. While these systems require less water for cooling equipment, they may be less efficient for producing electricity and are best incorporated into facilities located in areas with extreme water scarcity that warrant the use of more expensive technology.
- Hybrid cooling uses both air and water for cooling. Air cooling reduces the need for water when ambient air temperature is sufficient to support the necessary cooling, but uses water during other times of the year when heat transfer to air is inefficient. Electric production with hybrid cooling requires more fuel and produces less electricity than water cooling because of the less efficient steam cycle and additional electric load required by cooling fans. Xcel Energy has one thermal unit in Colorado (Comanche plant, Unit 3) that uses hybrid cooling.
- Dry cooling uses only air cooling to condense steam. In addition to being expensive to construct, dry cooling uses more fuel and produces less electricity than water cooling, due to less efficient steam cycle and additional electric load required by cooling fans. Additionally, heat transfer limitations during some months may limit plant generation capacity, potentially requiring additional power purchases to support system demands. Xcel Energy does not currently operate thermal plants that use dry cooling.
Managing Water Supply
Operations in the west and southwest
In the semi-arid and arid states where we operate, such as Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, water is acquired for our thermal and hydroelectric plants through water rights and other agreements. We have strategic water resource plans that are updated annually to reflect our current operational requirements, local climate conditions and water use. Throughout the year we conduct a variety of activities to accurately predict and plan for future water supplies, which include forecasting plant water requirements based on anticipated electric generation, accounting for the water we need and use, monitoring snowpack reports and studying stream flow forecasts, seasonal climate projections and changes to the Ogallala aquifer ― the primary aquifer that underlies much of the region in Texas and New Mexico that we serve.
According to the Colorado Division of Water Resources Cumulative Yearly Statistics 1996-2008, thermoelectric power generation makes up less than 0.5 percent of the state’s water usage, with agriculture making up 86 percent of usage and the remainder going to meet municipal, recreational and industrial needs. We anticipate the western and southwestern portions of our service area to experience drought conditions. We continue to work with water boards, management organizations, farmers and ranchers, utilities and local communities to develop innovative partnerships and agreements to help meet different water needs during dry times.
Learn more about our innovative partnerships and agreements.
Operations in the Upper Midwest
In Minnesota, Wisconsin and other northern states where water is more abundant, our thermal and hydroelectric plants are permitted to use and return water to nearby rivers and other waterways. We also take a strategic approach to water use in these areas by monitoring weather patterns and meteorological forecasting models to predict and prepare for an adequate water supply during times when unusually dry conditions are likely to persist. During drought years, we evaluate the use of alternative cooling options for each facility and implement prudent temporary measures to provide supplemental thermal cooling. In time of energy emergencies, our permits have provisions that allow some plant operating flexibility, along with additional environmental monitoring requirements to ensure protection of aquatic wildlife and biota.
Maintaining Water Quality
All our large plants in Texas and New Mexico, as well as several plants in Colorado, are zero discharge facilities — no process water is discharged from the plant site. It can include reuse of effluent for growing crops or disposal through evaporation ponds.
Other plants, especially those in Minnesota and Wisconsin, use once-through cooling where water is taken from a river or other waterway, used by the plant and returned to the environment. At all our plants where we discharge process water, we systematically treat, monitor and analyze the water to ensure we are meeting discharge requirements and to protect the aquatic environment. It’s important that we return the water we use to rivers and waterways in a usable condition and in compliance with stringent regulatory requirements.
Our water consumption has remained relatively flat since 2005 despite having increased electric production. We look for cost-effective opportunities to conserve water and have developed a number of innovative efforts to save and reduce water usage at our plants, especially the use of fresh or high quality water.
- Through our operations we use water as efficiently as possible. Water is circulated through the cooling process at our closed-loop plants multiple times — up to 25 times at some plants. When it is no longer suitable for cooling, water is used in coal-ash handling processes, with emission controls, for site irrigation and other uses.
- In Texas, we use recycled municipal effluent at our Harrington, Nichols and Jones facilities, and our Tolk plant uses effluent from Plant X for a portion of its water supply.
- Recycled municipal water from metro Denver is used for cooling water at Cherokee plant. Overall, this recycled water accounts for more than 40 percent of Cherokee’s water consumption and about 10 percent of our total water consumption in Colorado.
- We have reduced water use 30 to 50 percent for Comanche Unit 3 by incorporating a low-water use system with hybrid cooling technology that provides additional air cooling capability.
- Once the Clean Air-Clean Jobs project is complete with the retirement of nearly 600 megawatts of coal-fueled generation, we anticipate decreasing overall system water usage in Colorado by about 15 percent.
- Diversifying our energy supply can help us reduce water usage. The more than 15 percent of wind and solar power on our system does not require water.
- As we reduce energy usage through efficiency programs offered to customers, water usage likely decreases too.
In addition to saving water used for electric generation, we have efforts underway to conserve water in our office buildings and service centers.
Water Partnerships and Innovative Agreements
Water is a fundamental resource that has become more stressed as communities grow and as weather patterns fluctuate. It is an environmental concern that affects habitat and wildlife, in addition to people. Through engagement in the communities we serve, including participation on water boards, in management organizations and in regulatory forums, we are finding solutions and forming partnerships. Through the Xcel Energy Foundation, we also have supported local projects and community initiatives.
- We own very senior water rights on the Colorado River that are used to operate the 15-megawatt Shoshone Hydroelectric Generating Plant. To help meet water needs within the city of Denver and surrounding suburbs, we have an agreement to “relax” a portion of our water requirements for Shoshone during dry years. This past year Colorado experienced below average moisture, and spring 2013 was the first year that we implemented this agreement established in 2006 with Denver Water. Rather than maintaining 1,250 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the river to run Shoshone, we reduced our use to 704 cfs and allow Denver Water and other Colorado Front Range water providers to store river flows above this amount for municipal use.
- We have an agreement with the city of Longmont in northern Colorado that helps preserve high quality water for municipal use. We exchange annually up to 5,000 acre-feet of high quality water acquired under our water rights with the city’s lowest quality water or effluent. The city routinely discharges its effluent to the South Platte River where we take it to use at our power plants, including Fort St. Vrain, Cherokee and Pawnee plants. We have a similar agreement with the city of Westminster to provide high quality water from Clear Lake in exchange for municipal effluent to use at our plants.
- In dry years Colorado farmers typically lack the full water supply needed for growing crops. Through a mutually beneficial agreement, we buy limited quantities of water that farmers have available and use it in our power plants. Under this arrangement, farmers are compensated, helping them to get by during dry years.
- In 2013, Xcel Energy completed removal of a no-longer-utilized hydroelectric dam in Minnesota. We worked with the state Department of Natural Resources and the local community to restore the Minnesota River to its natural condition and enhance the natural biodiversity of aquatic wildlife in the area.
- We supported Friends of the Minnesota River Valley to help prevent phosphorus pollution within the Minnesota River Watershed, focusing on the 11-county Lower Minnesota River Watershed, which is home to more than a half million people.
- The Cannon River Watershed Partnership in Minnesota provides urban residents with education and easy, hands-on activities to help reduce storm water pollution. The Xcel Energy Foundation supported the organization’s activities in 2013, which included putting signage on storm drains to prohibit dumping and distributing pollution-reduction information in neighborhoods with storm drains. The organization also hosted a watershed-wide cleanup event in cities along the Cannon River including Red Wing, Northfield and Faribault, and provided rain barrel and rain garden workshops to teach people how to reduce runoff from their yards.
- The Xcel Energy Foundation funds a statewide initiative of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education (CFWE) to help raise awareness about water as a limited and valuable resource. By connecting Coloradoans with information and activities focused on water, including library and museum exhibits, speakers and video presentations and a water website, CFWE’s strives to motivate residents to become more proactive participants in the state’s water future and increase support for better managing and protecting Colorado’s water and waterways. In addition to providing funding, Xcel Energy water resources staff volunteer with and support this effort. In 2013, they participated in an edition of the organization’s Headwaters magazine, focused on water and energy.
- We supported the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District in a replanting project around Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, Colo., to replace trees removed because of massive beetle kill in the area. The habitat replacement will help to ensure surrounding hillsides don’t erode into the Dillon watershed, one of the most important for providing water to the Denver metropolitan area.
- To promote water education in the Texas Panhandle, we supported three community projects with the Amarillo College Foundation, a program with Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and the High Plains Institute for Applied Ecology.