Fossil fuel power stations harm the planet in more ways than one

Dr Maureen Williams gives her thoughts on the problems posed by warm water disposal on River Shannon’s ecosystem

The Lough Ree ESB power plant, one of the largest in Ireland, was temporarily shut down earlier this year when it was discovered that the plant was causing severe damage to the local environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that the plant had been violating condition 5.5 of their industrial emissions licence. The plant is a peat-burning power plant that uses water from the River Shannon for cooling before discharging the water back into the river. The problem arose when it was discovered that the water was being released back into the Shannon more than 10 degrees celsius warmer than its original temperature. The Shannon has a wide range of biodiversity and the lower Shannon, as well as the Shannon Callows, are classified by the European Union as special areas of conservation (SACs).

The discharge of this warm water into the river has had a noticeable effect on the aquatic ecosystem. Two Trinity scientists, Dr Maureen Williams and Dr Marcin Penk, explored these effects and found some damning evidence of the potential damage that has been done by the power plant. They published a paper in the ‘Science of the Total Environment’ journal that outlines the enormous growth in number of an invasive species of asian clam known as Corbicula fluminea. This species is comfortable in warmer water temperatures and they can reproduce rapidly in the Shannon due to the warm discharge water from the plant. The facilitation of this invasive species could result in a drastic change to the local aquatic ecosystem. The invasive clam could possibly outcompete our native species for important resources such as food and space. This surprising increase in the asian bivalves could throw the food web out of balance and lead to reduction and eventually a complete loss of our native marine life.

“The discharge of this warm water into the river has had a noticeable effect on the aquatic ecosystem.”

Recent estimates show that there are approximately 4.9 million square kilometres of land in Europe alone that is free and suitable for wind turbine installation. It can be argued that not enough is being done by governments and world leaders to push the change from fossil fuel-based energy to renewable energy. Dr Maureen Williams talked to Trinity News about her research that outlined the damage caused by Lough Ree.

In the paper, it is outlined that although there’s a clear increase in the number of asian clams, it is difficult to assess the true ecological impact that the invasive species is having. “Unfortunately, we don’t have definitive evidence yet of the impacts of C. fluminea on native species, as the invasion is pretty recent and our native species are threatened by many different stressors at once” Dr Williams says. “However, since the invasive clam is so dominant in the community and present in such high densities, we expect it is having a large effect.” It has been noted in previous case studies, that growth of invasive species can affect the local food web. Dr Williams explains: “The introduction of so many clams, with such a high biomass, likely affects the structure of the food web and trophic interactions between species. Any species that are able to eat the clams are gaining a food source, while species that are competing for space along the bottom of the river are going to have a hard time surviving.”

Invasive species don’t just mess with the food web, they can put a lot of stress on other species, especially when some kind of natural disturbance occurs such as fires or floods. “Invasive species change their ecosystems, and can make them more vulnerable to stressors like climate change. As we look to the future, ecosystem resilience (the ability to bounce back after a disturbance) is going to be of the utmost importance. Invasive species can threaten that resilience.” Invasive species can also have a huge cost economically, according to Dr Williams invasive species cost Ireland €200 million a year.

While discussing cases of human interference with nature, Dr Williams brought up the Great Auk. The Great Auk is a species of flightless bird that was hunted to extinction in the Northern Atlantic in the mid-19th century. It was hunted for food and its feathers were used for clothing. As it was flightless and quite meaty, it was an easy kill for hunters and sailors who travelled the waters of the North Atlantic. “One close to my heart is the Great Auk, which was hunted to extinction for food and its plumage. The TCD Zoological Museum was bequeathed a specimen, which can be seen when the museum is open over the summer, and the Auk has become a symbol for those of us working in conservation.” Williams also highlights a more recent case of humans causing extinction: “ We also unintentionally cause species to go extinct, such as the Californian condor louse, Colpocephalum californici. The species went extinct when the condors were brought into captivity for breeding. All lice were removed and killed to ensure the condor’s survival, and the Californian condor louse thus went extinct. Human interference can definitely alter the biodiversity of habitats, both directly and indirectly.”

“Responsibility for the environment rests on all of us as citizens as well as the government that represents us.”

Returning to the matter of the Lough Ree power station, it appears as though the damaging practice of discharging warm water into the Shannon had been going on for at least a year. The question must be asked, are our government and the EPA doing enough to enforce the rules and conditions that these fossil fuel power stations are supposed to adhere to? Of course, ESB is a statutory corporation and is owned in majority by the Irish government. The idea of a state-owned company breaking regulations that are created and enforced by that very same state, is one that causes concern for myself and many other environmentalists. Dr Williams had this to say on the matter: “Responsibility for the environment rests on all of us as citizens as well as the government that represents us. I do not think enough is being done by the government to address concerns about the environment, particularly as there is evidence that discharging hot water can have such significant consequences. Enforcement will always be an issue, as the consequences for workers and the economy can be major. However, it’s important for the EPA to enforce the rules within the permits and work to protect the ecosystems on which we rely.” Williams adds: “Without healthy, functioning ecosystems, Ireland will struggle in the future. This is particularly true with the River Shannon, which serves as the life-force of the country, draining a major amount of land area, bringing tourists to the country, and serving as an important source of freshwater.”

As the voice of Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion grow and expand across the globe, it’s only a matter of time before world leaders begin to make major changes that will shape our planet’s future. The time for change is now, and a major change that would help would be to reduce and eventually cease all burning of fossil fuels for power. Renewable energy sources are becoming more popular, easier to access and better designed. In Ireland’s case, we have so far invested greatly in wind power. Ireland currently has 350 wind farms according to the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA). Also, according to IWEA, the amount of energy generated by Irish wind farms can provide enough electricity to more than 2.4 million homes. This industry is still expanding and with other renewable sources being a possibility in Ireland, such as hydroelectric, solar and geothermal, it’s only a matter of time before we start to use renewable energy as our primary source of power. In Dr Williams’ eyes, we won’t just need to rely on wind energy: “A fully-renewable future will likely include a mixture of different technologies.” Only time will tell if our future will be fully renewable, but as our sea levels continue to rise, it is now or never.

Cian Lynch

Cian Lynch is the current SciTech Editor of Trinity News.