Finding the Power to Get Fresh Water from the Ocean

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

It’s April, for most part the rainy season is over and the severe California drought lingers. Beyond strict conservation, other ideas once considered fanciful or too expensive are back on the table. We’ll skip past the idea of towing an iceberg, as I previously referenced — something endorsed by the California legislature decades ago — and focus on desalination.

Proposals to desalinate water from the Pacific Ocean have run into environmental concerns and cost issues. Environmentalists still raise alarms dealing with the health of the ocean and the creatures that live in it. The thinking on the cost issue is changing, however, because of the severity of the drought, the increased value of water, and potential energy resources to make the process work.

As noted in a Public Policy Institute of California blog post “The Sierras received about half of annual average precipitation. And as the record warm temperatures of last year have persisted, the snowpack is at an all-time low (now 8% of average) … Statewide, reservoir storage is about half of capacity. However, the almost non-existent snowpack provides no prospect for improvement in storage this spring—something water managers count on in most years.”

The lack of water means any water produced by a desalination effort will receive high market prices encouraging investment and building of plants. The MIT Technology Review examining San Diego County’s soon to be operating $1-billion desalination plant in Carlsbad reported the plant’s purified water will sell for $2000 per-acre foot (the amount used by a two person household per year), which is 80% more than the county pays for treated water.

Still, the expense of producing desalinated water has always been tied up in energy costs. It takes tremendous energy output to make the desalination process work. Besides offsetting some of that cost with the increased price for water there may be new energy sources available that could lower costs.

As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, there is no place to store excess energy produced from renewable sources because of the time of day much of the energy is collected. While efforts are being made to figure out a way to store the energy, my non-engineer mind wonders if there is a way to transfer the energy to help reduce desalination costs.

Companies are working on ways to use renewable energies to power desalination. As Aaron Mandell, the head of one such company, WaterFX, told National Geographic, “Desalination is energy-intensive, but it doesn’t have to be fuel-intensive. That’s what really matters. The focus should be not so much on consumption, but where the energy comes from.”

There are many things that must be done to confront the drought not the least of which is cooperation from the federal government to recognize the seriousness of the drought and its effect on California’s agriculture. While conservation is a must, looking at ways to overcome the obstacles that have thwarted previous efforts on desalination should now be front and center in the water deliberations.

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