US utilities, with plenty of warm water, begin raising fish

Some of the inmates at the Rahway state prison are feasting on rainbow trout these days. The prison system bought the trout from the Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G), which raised them in cooling water pumped out of its coal-fired power plant here on the banks of the Deleware River.

For the utility, the trout will soon become another part of its business, moving the company into the food industry -- an industry less regulated than that of supplying electricity. If it makes a profit on its trout, other utilities will enter the business, Brice L. Godfriaux, who is with the company's research-and-development arm, predicts.

"Once we prove this is successful, by the year 2000 the utility industry could be involved with food processing right up to its ears," he says. In fact, he says, other utilities may decide to go ahead with food projects in two or three years. To spur development, PSE&G might sell its services to them.

On the surface, it would appear to be a logical business move for utilities. First, they have waste heat, which can be used to raise vegetables in greenhouses, for example. This has been done so far on an experimental scale.

Second, they have relatively warm water. It is usually raised 10 to 20 degrees when used for cooling purposes. Fish grow faster in warmer water than cold. At the power plant here, Mark Evans of MErcer Aquatic Associates -- under contract to work on the trout project -- reports that these fish grow 50 percent faster than they do in the cool waters of the Snake River in Idaho, the largest commercial trout fishery area.

PSE&G has tested several varieties of fish and shellfish. For the summer months, it is experimenting with channel catfish, eels, and St. Peter's fish, an Oriental delicacy. The eels would be exported, the St. Peter's fish sold to Chinese, and the catfish sold in the South.

The utility has invested $500,000 so far. It may expand its spending to $10 million to $15 million, once the operations turn profitable next year.

In California, the San Diego Gas & Electric Company and Southern California Edison Company have tried raising lobsters in water coming from their gas or oil-fired power plants in Carlsbad and Redondo Beach. In Nevada, the Sierra Pacific Power Company has grown giant Malaysian prawns at its Fort Churchill generating station. And in New York, the Long Island Lighting Company has leased out space in a lagoon next to its Northport, N.Y., power plant to Inmont Corporation, which grows oysters in the warmer water.

Until no, though, PSE&G is the only utility that has decided to go into "aquaculture" as a business.

Joseph Dietz, environmental programs director for San Diego Gas & Electric, says the company originally thought its lobster-raising plan could become "the second-largest fishing resource in the state of California."

It started with the spiny lobster, considered a real delicacy in the state. Unfortunately, the spiny lobster likes to "roam," and the cooling lagoon was too small for it. Thus, the utility shifted over to the lobster found on the East Coast.

Working with researchers from San Diego State University, they soon found that the East Coast lobster had disease problems when it grew on the West Coast. It backed off from dreams of becoming a fishing resource. Since then, however, researchers think they have solved this problem. Mr. Dietz says the utility is once again thinking about the lobster business.

In Nevada, a spokesman for Sierra Power says the company has grown the prawns successfully and sold them in San Francisco, Reno, and even Hawaii. He says the utility never intended to go into the business itself, however, but thought it would lease its cooling ponds to a commercial business. These plans changed when the power plant was downgraded from a base-load plant (used full time) to an intermediate-load plant. The change meant there wasn't enough waste heat available to allow the prawns to survive.

Recently the utility has again changed the nature of the plant, converting it partly to solar energy, and it intends to upgrade it to a base-load plant. Thus , the prawns may come back.

Like Sierra Power, Long Island Lighting did not want to go into the food business directly. But it did decide 12 years ago to lease lagoon space at its Northport plant to Inmont Corporation. There, Inmont takes baby oysters, raised at its nearby hatchery, and spreads them in the lagoon. The warm waters increase the growth rate, resulting in an oyster that comes to market in 2 1/2 years instead of the normal 4 years. Diners in such posh New York restaurants as the 21 Club, the Oyster Bar, and the Sky Club now slurp up the shellfish.

Before utilities around the nation start gearing up to build their own trout farms, they might want to heed the advice of Roger Oberg, vice-president and general manager of the Aquafood GRoup of Inmont, which also raises trout commercially in Idaho. "The whole thing with the hot water in great," he says. "But you must determine where you are going to sell the product, just as the farmer must."

What particularly disturbs Mr. Oberg is the thought of the potential production of billions of pounds of trout, should many utilities decide to produce them. Even if only 10 percent of the nation's 3,300 power plants started to raise fish, the amount would be large.

Mr. Godfriaux notes that the potential at the power plant here is alone 40 million pounds of trout a year, if the plant were to use all the 450,000 -gallon-a-minute capacity of water it has to cool its giant condensers. Current plans call for only "full capacity" production of 4 million pounds of fish a year.

Industry sources say they think annual sales of trout in the nation are running 25 to 30 million pounds. If utilities start producing trout in large quantities, as well as electricity, they will have to expand that market enormously.

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