A desalination plant in Dubai

Photo Courtesy of Starsend

Growth of Desalination Technology

By Frances Gould       November 5, 2017

Many governments and actors in the private sector are looking to desalination as a possible long-term solution to the world’s growing freshwater scarcity issue-- some even call it a crisis. Desalination is the process of generating potable freshwater from what was previously either seawater or brackish water. The two main modes of desalination are reverse-osmosis and various types of distillation. It is easy to get all giddy over new innovations that could stall or even reverse certain aspects of environmental degradation. We look forward to the promise of water desalination while failing to discuss the economic challenges and implications. Who gets access to potable water (whether it comes from an aquifer or a desalination plant) is most likely going to remain an urgent economic and moral challenge for years to come.

A couple of large multinational water corporations are taking the lead in bringing desalination infrastructure to areas that may need it the most. IDE Technologies is perhaps the most obvious example. Based in Israel, IDE strives to make potable water a stable and secure resource for areas that may be the most vulnerable to drought and seawater infiltration. IDE uses reverse osmosis modules for chemical-free desalination. It was founded in 1965, just after President John F. Kennedy asserted that desalination produced cheaply and competitively would be in the best interests of humanity and would “dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” IDE has spearheaded projects in California, Beijing, India, Chile, Australia, and Canada.

While IDE is not the only desalination player in Israel, it has certainly been the most influential. The IDE plant in Sorek has lowered desalination water prices to the point where Sorek households pay about the same as the average American household does for water that comes from conventional sources. This is great news for a country that is in one of the most arid regions in the world.

The variable costs associated with desalination primarily involve energy needs. IDE’s most recent project, the Carlsbad Plant in San Diego, plans to offset its carbon emissions, but IDE is yet to fund a project run entirely on renewable energy, a choice which would undeniably lower investment costs for the future. The Carlsbad Plant, which was designed by IDE and built by Poseidon Water, began operations in December 2015 and is now the largest salt water desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It currently provides 7% of San Diego’s water needs. As of right now, it costs between $49 and $59 million a year to operate. This might not be a problem for Californians who can afford commodified water, but what about countries where oil costs more and the people get paid less?

On the Arabian Peninsula, where aridity has always been a hurdle, the six Gulf Cooperation Council member countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) together have installed desalination capacities in the millions of cubic meters per day due to extremely low energy costs. But Arab countries that are not as oil-rich struggle to access potable water. Poorer Arab countries with far less oil like Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria (among others) have installed capacities, respectively, of 58, 28, and 13 thousand cubic meters per day. Desalination would remain a costly source of water for homes and businesses in these countries if traditional methods remain intact. This is because these traditional methods require fuels like oil that would ensure high variable costs. The demand curve shifts out as desalination increasingly becomes the main source of potable water and supply remains the same (the supply of salt and brackish water is likely to remain stable).

The most sensible solution to this quandary is prioritizing desalination plants that have much lower (or zero) energy costs. Startup projects like Masdar in Abu Dhabi and WaterFX in California could address the needs of areas where potable water increasingly becomes a function of desertification, geopolitical pressures, and economic hindrances. Both Masdar and WaterFX are set up to be powered entirely by renewables. While they are still in their respective pilot phases, they have created blueprints for what could very well be infrastructure that is a matter of life or death within a century or so.

Desalination plants powered entirely by renewables are a low-cost solution to the water concerns of the modern world. Whether the problem lies in a non-GCC Arab country where desertification and political struggle inhibit regular access to water or in a neglected municipality like Flint, Michigan, projects of this kind have the ability to one days secure access to water in a way that protects autonomy and does not cost enough to cause human rights concerns. The debate over providing water as a public good or commodifying it so as to ensure high quality is a debate that will not end in the foreseeable future. We can debate all we want about this, but we must invest in research and development of low-cost desalination in the meantime.



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