Desalination- from California to Australia—water, energy, climate, wildlife perspectives


Desalination plants a pricey option if drought persists

Kevin Fagan SF Chroncle Updated 10:52 pm, Saturday, February 15, 2014

As the drought bakes its way toward a fourth year, the state has a string of secret weapons in the works that could supply millions of gallons of new drinking water and help stave off disaster: desalination plants. Seventeen plants are in planning stages along the coast to convert salt water from the ocean or bays, including one near Concord that would serve every major water agency in the Bay Area. That plant is tentatively targeted to open in 2020, but could be kick-started earlier in an emergency, officials say – and once online, would gush at least 20 million gallons a day of drinkable water. Starting up this string of desalination plants would be no easy skate, though.


Machines that filter salt out of water still face the same opposition they have for generations from critics who say they are too expensive to run, kill fish as they suck in briny water, and spew greenhouse gases into the air from the energy they require to run. But in recent years, as technology and techniques for desalination have improved, such plants have gained momentum – enough so that in Carlsbad near San Diego, the biggest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere is under construction and set to begin operation in two years.  The $1 billion plant will tap the biggest water tank around, the Pacific Ocean. It will produce 50 million gallons of potable water daily, supplying more than 110,000 customers throughout San Diego County. Another large plant, with a potential price tag of $400 million, could begin construction in Monterey County by 2018. It would be near the only desalination plant in California that fills the needs of an entire municipality – the one that has been supplying water to Sand City, population 334, since 2010. “It’s a miracle how we managed to get this plant,” said Sand City Mayor David Pendergrass. “If we didn’t have it, the whole area would be in trouble. We’re not under any rationing here, but then we’ve been practicing conservation for years already, so we are responsible about our water use.

“I would absolutely recommend desalination for other areas.”


Bay Area project

Two hours north of Sand City, there is cautious enthusiasm for the $150 million Bay Area Regional Desalination Plant – as well as serious reservations. The biggest water agencies in the area, including San Francisco’s, have been developing the plant since 2003 and ran a successful small pilot version of it three years ago to make sure the location would work. The plant would sit in windswept Mallard Slough outside Bay Point and draw from delta waters flowing into Suisun Bay. “Certainly, the project is years out from being done, but it could be in the back of people’s minds as a ‘what if’ – and if we got into dire straits, money could be mobilized fast to finish it,” said Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager for water for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. San Francisco has been developing the plant with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Contra Costa Water District and the Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves the Livermore region. So far the consortium has spent $2.5 million in mostly state grant money on the plan. If built, the plant would be only a supplemental source for districts that collectively distribute about 750 million gallons of water a day. But that still makes it an important potential weapon in the fight for dwindling supply, proponents said.


The agencies’ officials emphasized they would explore other options such as conservation, recycling and tapping new groundwater wells before turning to desalination. But even the prospect of the plant opening has some environmentalists concerned. New plants require electricity that puts more greenhouse gases in the air, when simple conservation methods should be encouraged instead, some say. There is also the possibility that the pumps could suck in and kill small marine organisms and fish such as the endangered delta smelt, although the Concord-area plant’s designers say that’s unlikely because of its location at the side of a flowing channel.


Environmental fears

Also, though the delta water at Mallard Slough is brackish water rather than seawater – meaning it contains less salt and requires less energy to screen – the salinity level is expected to increase in coming decades as sea levels rise. And as the salinity goes up, so does the cost of screening the water. That cost would probably be passed on to water customers. Similar environmental and cost concerns over the past couple of years have stalled plans to build desalination plants in Santa Cruz and Marin County. “We actually support desalination when properly used, but you should look at the other options first,” said Charlotte Allen, co-chairwoman of the Sierra Club
Bay Chapter Water Committee.

The delta water plant – like the other 16 proposed along the coast and a handful of tiny plants already in use besides Sand City – would use a method called reverse osmosis, in which salty water is pulled in through filters. Typically, it takes two gallons of salty water to produce one gallon of potable water…..With better screens and technology that helps the plants power themselves by recycling the energy used to suck in water – in a way, like a hybrid car regenerates power from its own motion – the typical cost of running desalination plants can dip below $2,000 an acre-foot. Because pulling up groundwater from wells and recycling water can now cost the same or more, desalination is suddenly relatively affordable for many areas – such as the Bay Area.


Surface water from reservoirs and mountain runoff, in plentiful years, can be as cheap as $100 an acre-foot. But that bargain has become scarce in the drought. “In most areas of California we have exhausted a lot of the obvious water sources, and desalination is certainly an option – but it tends to be among the most expensive, even though the price has come down from what it was in 1991,” said Heather Cooley, a senior water researcher with the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit in Oakland. “Certainly there are other options that can be looked at first.” She also noted that with no sizable desalination plants operating in California, there hasn’t been much study on the full effect they could have on the coastline.  “I would argue there is a risk in building too early or too big,” Cooley said. “Our understanding is improving. We know the technology works. But the challenge is that it is not appropriate in every location. “It would be better to go forward very carefully.”


Online: Complete drought coverage at



Parched California Pours Mega-Millions Into Desalination Tech

By John Roach NBC News February 17, 2014

Besieged by drought and desperate for new sources of water, California towns are ramping up plans to convert salty ocean water into drinking water to quench their long-term thirst. The plants that carry out the high-tech “desalination” process can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but there may be few other choices for the parched state. Where the Pacific Ocean spills into the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, Calif., construction is 25 percent complete on a $1 billion project to wring 50 million gallons of freshwater a day from the sea and pour it into a water system that serves 3.1 million people. Desalination was a dreamy fiction during the California Water Wars of the early 20th century that inspired the classic 1974 movie “Chinatown.” In the 1980s, however, the process of forcing seawater through reverse osmosis membranes to filter out salt and other impurities became a reliable, even essential, tool in regions of the world desperate for water….

Cost and environmental concerns 

“The trend of imported water (pricing) is definitely going up,” Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank, told NBC News. “We have some major infrastructure investments needed for imported water in California. I don’t have a crystal ball for what it is going to look like, but no doubt it will raise the price of imported water.” The pending price hikes for imported water as well as its uncertain reliability, she explained, are compelling reasons for municipalities to consider desalination. But, she noted, “we can’t look at these issues in a vacuum; we have to look at all the options that are available.” The sentiment is echoed by the San Clemente, Calif.-based Surfrider Foundation, which has opposed several desalination projects, including Carlsbad, on environmental grounds. For example, sucking up large amounts of seawater can kill fish and other creatures as water passes through intake screens. “Our general position is there is just a lot more that can be done on both the conservation side and the water recycling side before you get to [desalination] and we feel, in a lot of cases, that we haven’t really explored all of those options,” Rick Wilson, the organization’s coastal management coordinator, told NBC News….

Ultimately, she said, seawater desalination will become part of the solution to California’s ongoing water woes — something to consider along with other supply options, including increased wastewater recycling. “The key questions,” Cooley said of the desalination plants, “are when do you build them and how large do you build them?”


WATCH: Parched from Drought, California’s Reservoirs Nearly Empty



Water-Cleaning Technology Could Help Farmers

By TODD WOODY NY Times February 17, 2014, Monday

A project developed by WaterFX, a start-up in drought-stricken California, exploits two things the Central Valley possesses in abundance — fallow land and sunshine — to cut desalinization costs

FIREBAUGH, Calif. (Fresno) — The giant solar receiver installed on a wheat field here in California’s agricultural heartland slowly rotates to track the sun and capture its energy. The 377-foot array, however, does not generate electricity but instead creates heat used to desalinate water. It is part of a project developed by a San Francisco area start-up called WaterFX that is tapping an abundant, if contaminated, resource in this parched region: the billions of gallons of water that lie just below the surface. Financed by the Panoche Water District with state funds, the $1 million solar thermal desalinization plant is removing impurities from drainage water at half the cost of traditional desalinization, according to Aaron Mandell, a founder of WaterFX. If the technology proves commercially viable — a larger plant is to be built this year — it could offer some relief to the West’s long-running water wars. WaterFX faces a daunting and urgent task. The water is tainted with toxic levels of salt, selenium and other heavy metals that wash down from the nearby Panoche foothills, and is so polluted that it must be constantly drained to keep it from poisoning crops.

A solar receiver in a field in Firebaugh, Calif. It is part of a project developed by WaterFX to cleanse water at a lower cost than traditional desalinization. Peter DaSilva for The New York Times ….

This year, farmers in the Panoche district will receive no water. Last year, they received only 20 percent of their allocation, Mr. Falaschi said. In 2012, the allocation was 40 percent. Farmers elsewhere who rely on the State Water Project to irrigate 750,000 acres of farmland will also receive no water in 2014. For agricultural water districts like Panoche, solar thermal desalinization promises to solve two persistent problems. One is a chronic water shortage, even in rainy years, as regulators divert water to cities and for environmental purposes, like protecting endangered fish. The other is the growing salt contamination of agricultural land that has led farmers to abandon more than 100,000 acres in the Central Valley in recent years. For decades, water districts like Panoche have drained salty groundwater and disposed of it in places like the San Joaquin River. But new environmental restrictions ban that practice. WaterFX could reduce the volume of drainage water that needs to be diverted while providing a new supply of fresh water for irrigation that is not dependent on the vagaries of snowpack and rainfall in far-off parts of the state. “This subsurface groundwater is a possible gold mine,” Mr. Falaschi said. “You’re taking a water supply that is unusable now and you’re converting it to a usable source.”
The desalinated water is of bottled-water quality, purer than what is needed for irrigation…..



Desalination destroys the environment and isn’t a quick fix for Southern California’s water woes

Angeles Chapter- Sierra Club Blog Monday, March 4, 2013 By Ray Hiemstra the Orange County Conservation Committee Chair for the Angeles Chapter Sierra Club.

Many people in Southern California think that we are in a perpetual drought and will not have enough water to sustain ourselves. Unfortunately, this common fear is fueling misguided support for ocean desalination, the process of removing salt from seawater to create potable water. Our fresh water supply is often wasted and underutilized, especially when 60% percent of the water we produce goes towards landscaping purposes, not human sustenance. We need to use what we have wisely, and consider innovative, cost effective and environmentally friendly supply options. There are currently 16 proposed desalination plants in California, and the idea is spreading. Desalination is the most environmentally damaging, energy intensive and expensive water supply option. In Huntington Beach, Poseidon Resources, a Connecticut-based corporation, plans to privatize a public good, and use outdated technologies to make a profit at the expense of ocean ecosystems and ratepayers wallets. Poseidon has never successfully built a large desalination plant before; they have only demonstrated that they are good at making closed-door deals.

Poseidon plans to use open ocean intake pipes, which the State of California has required all coastal power plants to discontinue using by 2020. Open ocean intakes suck in and kill billions of fish eggs, adult fish and other marine life. Not only is desalination harmful when taking water in, but also when it expels hyper saline brine, the salt by-product of the desalination process. In addition to a very high concentration of salt, brine also contains other pollutants such as heavy metals that can bioaccumulate throughout the food chain.  According to a study by the Pacific Institute, “direct discharges into estuaries and the ocean disrupt natural salinity balances and cause environmental damage of sensitive marshes or fisheries.” The brine discharge from the Poseidon plant will cause a dead zone off the coast of Huntington Beach. (For more information on opposition to the Poseidon plan, go to

Desalination not only harms marine resources, but it also affects our climate through increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Desalination is the most energy intensive water supply option. The Poseidon Huntington Beach plant would use enough energy to power 30,000 homes. Twenty percent of California’s cumulative energy demand goes to moving and treating water. In a 2008 report, the California Air Resources Board noted that a way for the state to reach its reduced GHG goals is to replace existing water supply and treatment processes with more energy efficient alternatives. Desalination is a step in the wrong direction if we want to reach this goal.

A recently approved Poseidon desalination plant in Carlsbad was originally estimated to cost around $250 million; now it is nearly a $1 billion project. The water to be produced at the plant costs 4 to 8 times more than other water sources such as groundwater or recycled water. And rate payers are bound to a 30- year contract to buy the water. Desalination may be one of the tools that water agencies and the public choose to pursue in the future but not before fully exploring and adopting the less expensive and proven options such as promoting water use efficiency, or funding the expanded use of recycling systems such as the Ground Water Replenishment System in Fountain Valley. The system takes highly treated wastewater that would have been discharged into the ocean and purifies it at a very affordable rate. In fact, the cost of water, per acre-foot, produced at the replenishment system costs one-third of what distributed water produced from a desalination plant would cost. Capturing urban runoff from the many high volume creeks and streams throughout the region, which dump hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water a day into the ocean, is a viable and cost-effective alternative. Richard Atwater, Executive Director of the Southern California Water Committee recently stated that Southern California needs to “recognize the importance and potential of stormwater as a supplemental water supply source to what we currently import”. Much of this water should be captured and recycled to provide indirect potable water and reduce pollution to our ocean, which is required by law anyway

Another flaw of building a desalination plant in Huntington Beach is that the Orange County Sanitation District releases millions of gallons of secondary treated water a day into the ocean less than a mile from the site for the desalination plant. Why treat wastewater, release it into the ocean, then spend $1 billion to build a plant that sucks that same water back in just to take the salt out of it? The water coming out of the sanitation district’s facility is already being treated at a level that it could be used as an indirect potable water source to expand the Ground Water Replenishment System.

Water reuse can help better utilize our current water supply, but we can also implement more conservation measures on the demand side. A cost-effective example is the move some cities are making to stop using potable water for landscaping. Reclaimed water is clean and safe enough to be utilized for irrigation. With the elimination of overwatering and the use of modern landscaping featuring California Friendly vegetation, we can drastically reduce the amount of water needed for landscaping and use the saved water for people and industry. The resulting water savings would help protect our current water supply, save ratepayers money, and reduce the need to create, or import more water. The Sierra Club realizes that desalination is a necessary option for the future, in regions that have exhausted all other options. What we are opposed to is using destructive 1960s technology that destroys our fish stocks and pollutes our ocean. Other countries have implemented desalination as a last resort when all other options have been tried. Hopefully California will do the same.  The Poseidon Huntington Beach project will be the turning point on desalination is done in California and your help is needed. Watch for messages from the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter regarding opportunities to send in letters or attend meetings to stop Poseidon and protect our environment.



Desalination- overview (2005)

This website outlines various methods of desalination, their operation, costs, ecological impacts, and benefits as well as drawbacks.
This website was developed for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire course ENPH 441:Water and Wastewater by Karen Bartosh,  Stefan Boerboom, and Lisa Brzenski, and Michael Checkai.  ….  Any concerns over copyrighted content or inaccuracies may be forwarded to Information on this website was compiled December 2005.

Desalination is seen by some as a solution to the problem of a shortage of potable water. In the state of California alone the population is expected to increase by 60,000 people per year. In an effort to meet the demand for fresh water, California already has 11 seawater desalination plants in operation along the cost. An additional 21 plants are in the planning stages. Desalination technology is becoming more beneficial in the cost aspect. Over the last decade the price has gone down from $2,000 per acre foot in 1990 to $800 in 2003. (An acre foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons or about one households use in a year). As an incentive to increase the production of desalination plants, the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California is offering subsidies of $250 per acre foot. States such as Florida, Texas, Hawaii, and New Mexico are also applying desalination technology to meet their water demand needs. There are various regulatory bodies overseeing the planning, building, and maintenance of desalination plants in the United States. Some bodies include the EPA, Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Specifically California desalinations are regulated under the California Coastal Act, among others. Details of this act are discussed below.

California Costal Act and Environmental Impacts
Two sections of the California Costal Act specifically address the issues of marine life and water quality and are stated as follows:
Section 30230:
“Marine resources shall be maintained, enhanced, and where feasible restored. Special protection shall be gives to areas and species of special biological or economic significance. Use of marine environment shall be carried out in a manner that will sustain the biological productivity of coastal waters and that will maintain healthy populations of all species of marine organisms adequate for long-term commercial, recreational, scientific, and educational purposes.”
Section 30231:
“The biological productivity and the quality of coastal waters, streams, wetlands, estuaries, and lakes appropriate to maintain optimum populations of marine organisms and for the protection of human health shall be maintained and , where feasible, resorted through, among other means, minimizing adverse effects of waste water discharges and entrainment, controlling runoff, prevention depletion of ground water supplies and substantial interference with surface water flow, encouraging waste water reclamation, maintaining natural vegetation buffer areas the protect riparian habitats, and minimizing alteration of natural streams.”

Intake and Discharge
In the process of reverse osmosis, the technique used most in the US, for every 2 gallons of intake water, 1 gallon of potable water is produced and 1 gallon of brine is produced. Intake, the first step in desalination, and discharge can have the potential to adversely harm marine life. The California Costal Act states that the water and marine life should at the minimum be maintained, a task which intake and discharge practices can impede on. During intake, marine life can be harmed or even killed when they are pulled into the intake pipe and are unable to escape due to the large water velocity.

Potential Solutions:
A solution to the intake problem is the potential use of a subsurface intake such as a beachwell or an open water intake. In areas where the soil types consist of clay, silt or unfractured rock, this alternative would not work. Ideally sandy soil would be needed to act as a natural filter. The city of Long Beach, California has proposed a system that would reduce the harmful effects of intake. They plan to use a system of pipes located underneath the sand in the ocean. Sand acts as a natural filter to the water being drawn into the plant. This system can also be used for the highly concentrated brine byproduct of desalination that is discharged.

Other Solutions:
1. Reducing the intake velocity- Fish and other organisms are able to escape or avoid being pulled in when the velocity is below .5 feet per second.
2. Velocity Caps-Fish have the ability to detect changes in horizontal velocity, but have a difficult time detecting changes coming vertically. Most intake systems pull water from above, making it difficult for the fish to detect. Placing a cap on the intake and leaving a gap between the intake and the cap allows for a flow that can be detected by fish.
3. Screens and fish return systems- screens placed at the landward side of the intake system allow fish to be release into an area prior to the plant. A fish return system can be implemented in this area to route the fish back to the body of water.
The brine discharged from a desalination plant can have a saline concentration of 70,000 ppm compared to the intake water of 35,000ppm. Organisms are adapted to the natural saline concentration and most of the time cannot handle the dramatic increase in concentration. Also, organisms at different stages of their lives have different sensitivity levels to saline. “Chemicals used during the desalination process include chlorine, ozone, or other biocides, various coagulants, acids, antiscalants, and others”. 

Contaminants found in the intake water also become part of the waste stream produced through desalination. The filters and membranes used in intake and the desalination process itself collect biomass. The accumulated dead organisms are forced to become part of the plants waste.
1. Location, Location, Location! – finding a proper location for discharge is crucial. Discharge should be done in areas where the population is not sensitive to changes in water quality.
2. Diffusers- allowing the discharge to be spread over a large area can result in faster diffusion into the water.
It is very important to note that the environmental impacts as well as cost and benefits vary from place to place….





Abu Dhabi Company Searches for Greener Method of Desalination

By SARA HAMDAN NY Times January 24, 2013, Thursday

Masdar, a renewable energy company, is turning its attention to finding ways to remove the salt from seawater using solar power and other innovative technologies.



Arid Australia Sips Seawater, but at a Cost

Edwina Pickles for The New York Times Government-subsidized tanks are used to capture rainwater for home in the Australian state of Queensland, part of the response to recent drought.

Published: July 10, 2010  NY TIMES BRISBANE, Australia — In Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent, early British explorers searching for a source of drinking water scoured the bone-dry interior for a fabled inland sea. One overeager believer even carted a whaleboat hundreds of miles from the coast, but found mostly desert inside. Today, Australians are turning in the opposite direction: the sea.  In one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects in its history, Australia’s five largest cities are spending $13.2 billion on desalination plants capable of sucking millions of gallons of seawater from the surrounding oceans every day, removing the salt and yielding potable water. In two years, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, Australia’s major cities will draw up to 30 percent of their water from the sea.  The country is still recovering from its worst drought ever, a decade-long parching that the government says was deepened by climate change. With water shortages looming, other countries, including the United States and China, are also looking to the sea.

“We consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine for climate change-induced changes to water supply systems,” said Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, an umbrella group of the country’s urban water utilities. He described the $13.2 billion as “the cost of adapting to climate change.”  But desalination is also drawing fierce criticism and civic protests. Many homeowners, angry about rising water bills, and environmentalists, wary of the plants’ effect on the climate, call the projects energy-hungry white elephants. Stricter conservation measures, like mandating more efficient washing machines, would easily wring more water from existing supplies, critics say.

….  Besides restricting water use and subsidizing the purchase of home water tanks to capture rainwater, the state spent nearly $8 billion to create the country’s most sophisticated water supply network. It fashioned dams and a web of pipelines to connect 18 independent water utilities in a single grid. To “drought proof” the region, it built facilities for manufacturing water, by recycling wastewater, to use for industrial purposes, and by desalinating seawater. Production of desalinated water can be adjusted according to rain levels.

“When the last of the assets were coming online, it rained, as it always does,” Mr. Dennien said, adding that the region now has enough water for the next 20 years.

“We’ve got a method of operating the grid that the next time any sign of drought occurs, we can just,” he snapped his fingers, “build something else or turn something else on, and we’ve got enough water supply.”  Other cities are making the same bet. Perth, which opened the nation’s first desalination plant in 2006, is building a second one. Sydney’s plant started operating early this year, and plants near Melbourne and Adelaide are under construction.  Until a few years ago, most of the world’s large-scale desalination plants were in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, though water scarcity is changing that. In the United States, where only one major plant is running, in Tampa Bay, officials are moving forward on proposed facilities in California and Texas, said Tom Pankratz, a director of the International Desalination Association, based in Topsfield, Mass. China, which recently opened its biggest desalination plant, in Tianjin, could eventually overtake Saudi Arabia as the world leader, he said.

Many environmentalists and economists oppose any further expansion of desalination because of its price and contribution to global warming. The power needed to remove the salt from seawater accounts for up to 50 percent of the cost of desalination, and Australia relies on coal, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, to generate most of its electricity.

Critics say desalination will add to the very climate change that is aggravating the country’s water shortage. To make desalination politically palatable, Australia’s plants are using power from newly built wind farms or higher-priced energy classified as clean. For households in cities with the new plants, water bills are expected to double over the next four years, according to the Water Services Association.

But critics say there are cheaper alternatives. They advocate conservation measures, as well as better management of groundwater reserves and water catchments. “Almost every city which has implemented a desalination plant has nowhere near maxed out or used up their conservation potential,” said Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. Even without restrictions, cities could easily save 20 percent of their water, Mr. White said.

He said cities should practice “desalination readiness” by drawing plans to build a plant, but should carry them out only as a last resort in the event of a severe drought.

Mr. Young of the Water Services Association said desalination in Australia costs $1.75 to $2 per cubic meter, including the costs of construction, clean energy and production. The prices are probably the world’s highest, said Mr. Pankratz of the International Desalination Association, adding that desalination was cheaper in countries with less strict environmental standards. He said the cost at a typical new plant in the world today would be about $1 per cubic meter.  Opponents of desalination say that a cheaper and environmentally friendlier alternative is recycling wastewater, though persuading people to drink it remains difficult and politically delicate. The SEQ Water Grid Manager, for instance, retreated from its initial plan to introduce recycled wastewater into its drinking reservoirs after it began raining.  “There’s a stigma against recycled water,” said David Mason, 40, a resident of Tugun.  “But since there’s only so much water in the world, and it’s been through somebody’s body or some other place over the past 250 million years, maybe it’s not that bad. At least, it might be better than desalination.”


The Grass is Greener in Perth, a Water-Scarce City Adjusting to Climate Change

Posted by Robert Glennon in Water Currents on April 10, 2012 National Geographic

The capital of Western Australia, Perth, is at the epicenter of global climate change. The city’s strategic response offers lessons about climate change mitigation, exacerbation and adaptation. The lessons are acutely relevant to the United States, particularly California. The grass is greener and there’s lots of it in Perth, as residents who once called Great Britain home recreated lush landscapes with sprawling lawns, tidy gardens, and enormous parks. That Great Britain’s climate is cold and wet while Perth’s is hot and arid has not dampened Perth’s love affair with lawns. Nor has the soil, which is as sandy as a Florida beach rather than as loamy as an English countryside….. In 2006, Perth made a strategic choice to build a desalination plant, powered by a wind farm. The next year the city opted to build a second plant in Binningup, 150 kilometers south of Perth. This second plant will provide 100 billion liters of water every year, enough to satisfy 20 percent of Perth’s needs.

The Water Corporation proudly notes that the Binningup Desalination Plant will rely on solar and wind credits. What is less publicized is that a coal-fired power plant will actually provide the electricity to run the desalination facility.  This irony of using coal, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, has not gone unnoticed and the Water Corporation and the Western Australia Department of Water have had to fend off charges of hypocrisy….. Or, in Perth’s case, it’s exacerbation and adaptation. Perth’s use of coal will exacerbate climate change by releasing lots of CO2, but it also adapts to lower river flows and plummeting groundwater tables by finding a new supply of water — the ocean.

Perth will suffer, along with the rest of the world, from the GHGs released by the coal-fired plant. But, the consequence for climate change from the GHGs released by any single plant is trivial. It’s the combination of the small releases by millions of polluters that threatens the planet. Meanwhile, Perth gets 100 percent of the benefits from running a coal-fired desalination plant: 100 billion liters per year of fresh water.  In this framing, Perth’s decision to use coal is an example of the tragedy of the commons. The air is the common pool resource and the environmental harms are the third-party consequences (or externalities), that is, costs caused by an actor but not paid for (or internalized) by that actor. The benefits to Perth are direct and immediate (new water) and the harms are diffuse and inter-generational. That’s what makes climate change such an intractable problem.


World Environment Day: Desalination and Green Energy in Australia

Posted on 5 June 2012 by Neil Palmer, CEO National Centre for Excellence in Desalination
Presented on World Environment Day 2012 at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman

Australia faced a severe and prolonged drought from 1997–2009.  It was considered to be a one in a thousand year event and became known as the “Millennium Drought”.  During this period, increasingly severe water restrictions were imposed on consumers across Australia.  Water stored in reservoirs became depleted and in some cases almost ran out. As a direct result, Governments in Australia invested heavily in climate resilient water supply technology.  This included seawater reverse osmosis desalination and waste water recycling.  The total amount invested was more than $US10 billion and resulted in construction of six major seawater desalination plants and one major indirect potable water reuse system.

Capacity and Cost of Australia’s Major Urban Desalination and Reuse Plants

Desalination Plant



$A billion

Perth (Kwinana)




Gold Coast (Tugun)




Brisbane Western Corridor Water Recycling Project




Sydney (Kurnell)




Perth Southern (Binningup) Stages 1 and 2




Adelaide (Pt Stanvac)




Melbourne (Wonthaggi)








Source: ATSE: “Sustainable Water Management – Securing Australia’s Future in a Green Economy” ARC April 2012 pp 53-55


A further private desalination plant of 140 ML/d capacity has been built for Citic Asia Pacific iron ore mine near Cape Preston in northern Western Australia and a new 280 ML/d plant has been approved for construction for BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam expansion project near Whyalla in South Australia, bringing the total installed capacity to more than 2200 ML/d. This is significant by world standards and also redressements very rapid development. Following this investment in water resilient infrastructure, the Australian Government funded two research centres: The National Centre of Excellence in Desalination, Australia and the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence. These Centres have each been funded $A20 million over 5 years from the Australian Government’s National Water Initiative. Desalination is sometimes termed “energy guzzling” in Australia, even though the consumption of energy for supplying a whole household with water is relatively modest (about the same as the energy used in running the household domestic refrigerator). Notwithstanding its modest power consumption, Australia’s water utilities have elected to purchase renewable wind energy to offset the entire energy budget of all the six major seawater desalination plants. It can be said that effectively these desalination plants have a negligible operating carbon footprint. In Western Australia, the Water Corporation expressed a desire for a significant portion of the renewable energy from the Southern Seawater Desalination Plant to be derived from “other than wind power” and as a result one of Australia’s largest solar power stations is being constructed near Geraldton on the mid west coast. This will supply 10% of the total energy used in the plant. Construction of the six major urban desalination plants has resulted in massive development of wind farms in Australia as a green alternative to enlarging the capacity of coal burning power stations. The National Centre of Excellence in Desalination (NCEDA) has been in operation since 2009 and has run four funding rounds with proposals being accepted from all of the 14 Participating Organisations.  The funding is competitive and is highly sought after by the academic community.  The NCEDA has a focus on commercialisation and projects that invent or develop new technology are highly regarded.

The NCEDA has a mandate from the Government to “efficiently and affordably reduce the carbon footprint of desalination facilities and technologies”.  A number of projects are in progress to develop seriously the use of renewable resources to power desalination.
….  Australia has a great deal of land available close to the sea and the concept of a reliable, climate resilient water supply powered from renewable solar energy is very appealing in a world that is increasingly short of food….Australia has invested heavily in urban desalination and water recycling technology over the past ten years.  In doing so, decisions of state Governments to power the desalination plants effectively from renewable resources has provided a big boost to the renewable energy industry as well as ensuring a secure water supply is always available, but with a very low operating carbon footprint.  Research is also focusing on ways to reduce carbon footprint in a number of ways by developing renewable sources including solar, waste heat and geothermal energy to power desalination.

Social, environmental and economic issues

 National Centre for Excellence in Desalination, Australia

Desalination is still a relatively controversial public issue. Most of this controversy revolves around the energy intensity of desalination and concerns over the environmental impacts of brine concentrate and other waste products. The production of data and the application of scientific rigour that provides an independent analysis and assessment of controversial issues associated with desalination would go a long way toward addressing public concerns in a constructive manner. There is an opportunity for research that assists the development of a scientifically informed public awareness program. Widespread deployment of desalination, while dependent on improvements in critical system requirements, will also require attention to environmental impact, social concerns, economic policy, and other non-technical barriers….(see list of research projects)


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