06/21/2010 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cooling Water and Oil Don't Mix

Many older power plants have an almost insatiable thirst for water. A single large power plant that uses an outdated once-through cooling system can suck in billions of gallons of water per day, then discharge that water back to its source at a higher temperature. In the process, small aquatic organisms are sucked into the cooling system and killed, while fish and other larger animals trapped against screens intended to keep them out of the cooling system are injured or killed. In New York alone, nearly 17 billion fish eggs and larvae are killed every year by power plants.

The destruction of aquatic life extending from the very bottom of the food chain up to larger predators is reason enough to end this damaging practice and force power plants to upgrade to far less thirsty and far less damaging closed-cycle cooling systems. But now residents along the Gulf Coast have another very good reason.

Thanks to the oil spill tragedy still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, operators of coastal power plants are getting a little antsy about the prospect of oil working its way into cooling water intakes. Back in mid-May, the Department of Energy raised concerns about the damage that the spreading oil slick could cause at several Gulf Coast power plants.

Power plants in Mississippi and Florida's Gulf Coast have already installed precautionary booms and skimmers to ward off any surface oil. But, as we've been learning, much of the toxic compounds from the oil gushing out of the Deepwater Horizon wreckage is not rising to the surface to evaporate, but is remaining underwater in vast plumes.

Just compare this video of a laboratory test recreating oil discharged at a high velocity underwater to the video of the actual Deepwater Horizon blowout. Looks a little similar, no?

So while booms and skimmers may help keep surface oil away from beaches, wetlands and even power plant intakes, what about oil that has dispersed into large "clouds" below the surface? The owner of a power plant just north of Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, is ready to install "pom pom booms" and even experiment with walls of air bubbles to keep this underwater oil from damaging the cooling system and causing the plant to shut down.

But the truth is that no one knows if any barriers, whether they're designed to contain surface oil slicks or below-water plumes, will be effective in holding back the sheer mass of this unprecedented oil spill. Now that the hurricane season has arrived, chances are that much greater that power plant operators will find out firsthand if they're ready to stave off an onslaught of shoreward-bound oil. In any event, the Deepwater Horizon disaster and its countless ramifications provide yet another example of the incredibly complex interconnections between water and energy.

Originally published at Ecocentric.