Desalination: Yesterdayʼs Solution (part 2)

by | 1.19.2011 at 9:00am | 5 Comments
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This is a guest post by Debbie Cook. Debbie Cook is the former mayor of Huntington Beach, California and was the Democratic candidate for California’s 46th Congressional District in 2008. Cook has had a long interest in the interrelationship between water and energy policy. Her writing on sustainability issues has appeared in the Huffington Post, Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum and Post Carbon Institute, of which she is also a board member. In this three part series, Cook casts a skeptical eye on the increasingly popular practice of desalination of seawater to meet growing water needs.

Continued from Part 1

Exhume the dead

Everyone has skeletons in their closets, desalination is no exception. Burying them does a disservice to the millions of public dollars that have been invested. Letʼs celebrate their weaknesses so that we may never repeat their mistakes. There may be many dozens of such projects, but here are a few that have experienced their share of controversy: Santa Barbara, Key West, Santa Catalina, Yuma.

  • Santa Barbaraʼs project was mothballed before a single drop of water was introduced into its distribution system.
  • Key West built a 130 mile pipeline and implements water rationing when necessary, thus avoiding operation of its plant.
  • Catalina Island hasnʼt operated its plant in years, relying on price signals with water rates that are perhaps the highest in the nation. Their top water tier is over $10,000/acre-foot. In response to the utilityʼs rate increase request, the California Public Utilities Commission had this to say about the Catalina facility: “…for Catalina Island in 2005, desalinated water accounted for only 25% of total water production, but desalination accounted for approximately 70% of total electricity usage.” [Despite repeated requests, the operator, Southern California Edison, would not divulge information about the plants operation.]
  • The 72mg/d Yuma desalter, constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation, was built to comply with a treaty with Mexico. It was completed in 1992, operated at 1/3 capacity for 6 months and then shut down in 1993. Other, less expensive options for treaty compliance made it unnecessary.

In addition to these projects, there are many pilot projects that litter Southern California. Iʼve often wondered why every proposed project has to be preceded by a pilot project. There is one in Los Angeles County that has already expended $23 million of public money. It follows one built in Long Beach which follows one built in Carlsbad which follows one… You get the picture. Itʼs insane.

Go slow, include all stakeholders

Australia began its desalination building boom in 2004 amid a prolonged drought, ultimately committing $10 billion for six projects. Public participation consisted of after-the- fact review of incomplete details. Construction contracts even contain backed out details of critical information. Decisions were made at Cabinet level and one officialʼs rationale for excluding the public was that information would be “incomprehensible” to the them.

Officials further aggravated their problems by approving multiple projects that competed with each other for materials and labor. Perth, completed its first project in 2006 with the lowest projected water costs of $1677/acre-foot. Later projects came in significantly higher. The Productivity Commission, the governmentʼs independent research and advisory body, announced in July an investigation into the financial and environmental impact of Australiaʼs water sector. A final report is expected in July. The number of customers seeking financial assistance has risen by 20% in two years. The auditor-general of Australia has estimated that the $5.7 billion Wonthaggi plant in Victoria will cost $24 billion over the life of its 28-year contract11 and water increases of 20% per year for five years have been recommended. The first political backlash occurred in Novemberʼs elections where the Labor party took a beating. With rain returning and reservoirs rising to normal, the Queensland/ Gold Coast Tugun plant and Victoriaʼs Wonghaggi plant are proposed to be placed on standby to ease the burden on ratepayers.

Assess the weak links

Energy makes up the lions share of the costs of producing water, whether from the reverse osmosis process or a thermal process. Like the oft reported stories of “new energy” sources, the desalination industry is constantly bragging about new technologies that have reduced the energy demands of their process. I hope they are true, but until the industry can convert those promises into lower costs, they are no better than the hype of biofuels or perpetual motion.

Despite the widespread belief that the Middle East has unlimited energy resources, both water security and energy security are a real threat to their economy and world security. How long will the Middle East, where as much as 90% of water is coming from ocean desalination be able to afford the luxury of desalinated water? According to some reports, water rates in Saudi Arabia cover less than half of one percent of the cost of producing desalinated water. Subsidizing water, food, and gasoline is seen as a way of sharing the countryʼs oil wealth. But the absence of any price signal has led to some of the highest per capita water consumption in the world, and highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Saudi Arabia now ranks 6th in greenhouse gas emissions, half directly attributable to desalination. Authorities are straining under the burden of water and energy demands pushed by burgeoning population growth. Despite allocating $150 billion over the next five years for power and water projects, they have been forced to abandon their goal of becoming self-sufficient in wheat production. With natural gas in short supply, the feedstock to produce electricity will continue to be oil. The irony is that oil revenues make up 90% of the Saudi governmentʼs budget so every barrel diverted to water is a barrel that cannot be sold on the market to fill state coffers.

Diagram of Saudi desalination plant. Source: GreenProphet.

The rising costs of energy are not just impacting the cost of electricity, they impact the entire desalination supply chain: mining of materials, (e.g. 6 million pounds of titanium alone are required for the worldʼs largest desalination plant in Saudi Arabia20); manufacturing and shipping of components; construction; continuous supply of chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels; maintaining equipment; and any necessary treatment for the discharged brine and chemicals. We have long assumed that water was the limiting resource for societies, but water is just the end product of a very long supply chain, with any link capable of affecting reliability.

To be continued.

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5 Responses to “Desalination: Yesterdayʼs Solution (part 2)”

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  2. Debbie Cook says:

    Feel free to contact me through Post Carbon Institute if you need further information.

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