Along the north shore of Hyco Lake, near the border with Virginia north of Durham where I live is a dock with a roof covered by solar panels.
That’s seemingly incongruous only because Hyco is one of a pair of lakes created on each side of the small town of Roxboro to serve as gigantic cooling ponds for coal-fired steam generation power plants.
In fact, an astonishing 38% of the nation’s fresh water goes to cooling power plants.
Recreation on Hyco and Mayo lakes, including cabins, lake houses, as well as houses on the two lakes (there is a difference) have become byproducts from the water needed for their respective power plants.
But as I will note, changes are underway that may soon elevate these to the primary purpose of these lakes.
Of personal interest is Mayo, the lake on the east side of the 8,000 person town. The lakes differ greatly and so do the steam plants for which they were created.
Mayo Lake not only has 25% less surface, it has 52% of the shoreline of Hyco Lake. On Mayo, the northern third around the plant is undeveloped, making it rarely, if ever, in view.
Technically, Duke Energy owns up to the 420’ mark around each lake, but while on Hyco there are little or no restrictions, Mayo reflects the concern for the environment that later emerged in the 1970s.
Around Mayo Lake, according to observers this buffer is protected natural vegetation as habitat for “black bear, white-tailed deer, red fox, opossum, skunk, beaver, and bobcat as well as hundreds of bird species such as grebes, herons, ospreys, red-tailed hawks and owls.”
Motorized watercraft are permitted on both but Hyco Lake seems more “recreational” in nature, as in amusements. Kind of like “camp” vs. nature preserve.
Mayo does not permit “permanent” docks, while Hyco has elaborate docks and boat houses that cost as much as some lake houses. Both have public parks to launch boats and swim.
The power plants are much different, too. The one for which Hyco, known as the Roxboro Steam Plant was created is a couple of decades older and is more than three times larger than the Mayo Plant shown in the image in this essay.
Both are now equipped with “scrubbers” required by the EPA to cut down on air pollution and first mandated by Congress in 1977.
They each burn a lot of coal including about 5.5 million tons annually at Hyco and 1.8 million tons at Mayo.
To put that in perspective, the Hyco plant burns between a 100-car train and a half to two and a half trains of coal a day, each coal car carrying about a 100 tons. A 45-60 day supply or so is kept in reserve.
Mayo uses a third as much.
Occasionally, some coal supply may come from as far away as northeastern Wyoming, but primarily, both plants are supplied from mines in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky via routes through Virginia.
Remember the haunting song You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive?
Both lakes have coal ash stored on site, Mayo’s stretching up toward South Boston, Virginia, while Hyco’s stretches toward Roxboro.
The Mayo plant sells about a quarter of its 160,000 tons of annual coal ash for use in road and building construction.
The Hyco plant generates around 500,000 tons of coal ash. It is one of the largest in the country and for the past six years, the remaining coal ash from Mayo has been trucked over there.
A year ago, a state of the art, special landfill with groundwater monitoring was opened downstream from the Mayo Plant which will eventually grow to 100 acres.
The solution, though, is more than tougher limits on emissions and conversion of the plants to natural gas. Natural gas is now used to generate more than 30% of electricity compared to less than 37% generated by coal.
But while natural gas generation uses four times less water for cooling than coal, a savings of nearly 20 trillion gallons of water since 2005, fracking, the technology used to source the natural gas uses 28 times more water than it did 15 years ago.
An even better alternative is a new patented closed-loop process pioneered here in Durham by NetPower called the Allam Cycle which eliminates all air emissions including carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.
NetPower’s technology is not equipment to control pollution but an entirely new combustion process called oxy-combustion. It has turned a major problem into a recyclable solution, in part, utilizing carbon capture.
In effect, it eliminates the entire steam process, which wastes 30% to 40% of its energy, and all of the associated equipment.
Ironically, it very well may be this Durham-inspired innovation that will finally bring Republican skeptics onboard regarding climate change, turning their pejorative “Whatever else they do in Durham,” into an accolade.
As noted by local journalist Alex Dixon, it is a phenomenon of behavioral change identified in a recent study conducted here at Duke entitled, “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.”
NetPower’s new technology also means that power plants such as Hyco and Mayo can be greatly downsized as they convert, while also lowering the cost of the power generated.
They also probably won’t be needing those “cooling ponds,” leaving Hyco and Mayo lakes as a lifestyle legacy.