System Would Use Effluent to Produce Power

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Government and industry officials are creating an innovative sewage system in Charles County that is believed to be the first in the nation that would use water flushed down the toilet to operate power plants.

Called a closed-loop system, the plan is to pump the county's sewage to treatment stations and then route the treated sewage, known as effluent, to area power plants. Instead of groundwater, the plants would use the effluent for their cooling towers and other operations.

The new system has not entered the permitting process, and the county government is still negotiating with power plant companies over details such as building the extensive pipe network and financing the project. But government and industry officials involved in the discussions described the plan as nearly finalized.

The system's design is receiving high marks from environmentalists and wastewater experts, who called it innovative and said its benefits would be twofold. The area's power plants would no longer draw groundwater, helping preserve a key natural resource in fast-growing Southern Maryland. In addition, the county would stop flushing its treated sewage into the Potomac River, an important step in cleaning the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's win-win all the way around," said Charles County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large).

John Reardon, the county's economic development director, said the plan would allow power plants -- long considered environmental scrooges -- to help limit area water pollution. "It takes it from a negative environmental impact to help green the planet," Reardon said. "It turns sewage from a liability into an asset."

The science behind the closed-loop system is not new, experts said. In such states as California and Florida, where groundwater is particularly scarce, some communities use treated effluent in lieu of water for landscaping at parks and golf courses.

But the closed-loop network being built in Charles -- connecting the county's sewage system to two power plants and a third that is planned for the area -- is new, officials said.

"A big system like this that covers several facilities in volume does not exist," Reardon said. "Nobody's done anything like this before."

"This is a process that is going to be very quickly imitated around the country," state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said.

According to drafts of the plans, the system would include two area power plants: a natural gas plant across the Prince George's County border in Brandywine, operated by Panda Energy, and a coal-burning plant along the Potomac in southern Charles, operated by Mirant Corp.

County officials said they hope a third facility, a natural gas plant planned in St. Charles by Silver Spring-based Competitive Power Ventures, will join the network.

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