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Australia Raises Conservationists’ Eyebrows with Plans for Renewable Energy-Powered Water Treatment Plant

| Wednesday July 15th, 2009 | 1 Comment

factory.jpgAustralia is attempting a remarkable feat: the creation of a seawater desalination plant powered completely by energy bought from renewable energy suppliers (i.e. wind, solar, and geothermal). Given the continent’s water shortage and the global push for clean energy, the plant will, in some ways, be quite an accomplishment. Yet, given the “un-greenness” of traditional desal facilities (which guzzle energy and water and harm nearby wildlife), it could also be something akin to putting lipstick on a pig. Skeptics wonder: will the plant live up to people’s expectations?

The federal government has already approved plans for the $780 million water treatment facility, which will be built in Western Australia (WA). By removing salt from ocean water, the plant is expected, upon its completion in 2011, to boost water supplies for drought-plagued WA by 20 percent. According to a statement by WA’s Minister for Water, the plant will run on power purchased from renewable energy suppliers (not power obtained directly from renewable sources), thereby minimizing the facility’s emissions. The plant must also meet strict wildlife preservation requirements – mandates proponents say give the facility noteworthy green cred.
However, while plans for the facility sound environmentally solid, conservation groups (including the WA Conservation Council) are remaining vigilant. Unsure whether those responsible will report the plant’s carbon neutrality truthfully, these groups seek, among other goals, to hold the government responsible for accurate accounting of the facility’s actual environmental impact.
After all, the fact that the Australia government’s record for truthful reporting is not unblemished (it issued false statements about emissions by another facility [the Kwinana plant in Perth]) fuels cynics’ concerns. Moreover, the benefits of desalination – even for clean energy-fueled plants – may not outweigh the costs: the desal process typically involves pumping as much as 100 million gallons of water from the ocean each day, from which the plant produces just 50 gallons of potable water. The facility then returns large amounts of brine to the sea.
Construction for the WA facility is to begin later this year.

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  • Rob Bryan

    Check the numbers there. Typically, the ratio of feed water to product water is 4 to 1. The seawater must be pressurized to 800 to 1,000 PSI in the process. The energy loss is in dumping the reject (now a concentrated brine) from high pressure to low. There are a number of energy recapture technologies that could be employed.
    What seems to me to make the most sense though is installing desalinators in offshore or near shore wind turbine bases. Still not free (maintenance of reverse osmosis desalinators is high) but close.