July 17, 2012
By David Rosenfeld, DC Bureau
After more than a decade spent talking about building a large-scale ocean desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, the private equity firm proposing to finance the project has one last hurdle to overcome: It needs someone to agree to buy the water.
Poseidon Resources has put forth several iterations over the years of its proposed plant in San Diego County, expected to produce up to 50 million gallons of freshwater daily. In one attempt, Poseidon inked agreements with local water agencies claiming it could sell water at no greater cost than imported water supplies.
But investors and members of the San Diego County Water Authority, both of whom Poseidon needs for support, balked at the claim and those agreements were scrapped.
Now the company needs the county’s 36-member water board to agree on a purchase price, which will definitely be more than Poseidon originally promised. Based on a recent public meeting, negotiations still might not be easy.
Director Lynne Heidel said she would like to see a comparison of costs between desalination and a water recycling plant producing what’s known as indirect and direct potable reuse. The technology resembles desalination but requires far less energy.
“If this is really too expensive and nobody’s going to pay for it, we should know that,” Heidel said at the public meeting in April. “There might be no one on the train when we get to the station.”
Director Keith Lewinger representing Carlsbad also agreed that a comparison should be made.
“I agree desal water is going to be expensive,” he said. “And this board has not determined whether or not we’re going to proceed with that project.”
He also questioned the impact of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant temporarily being shut down. The reactor supplying a large share of energy to southern California could affect the overall price of energy and therefore the cost of desalination. It takes about 3,400 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce an acre-foot of fresh water from the ocean.
Several environmental activists questioned the board’s general support of desalination. Along with the plant in Carlsbad, the agency is considering one other plant along with possibly pumping water north from a desalination facility in Mexico.
Belinda Smith with the Surfrider Foundation asked that reasonable alternatives be examined such as the IPR and DPR methods the county could maximize.
“People are really concerned about how much energy is being used,” Smith said. “They want to know where this energy is going to come from.”
Marco Gonzalez, an attorney with Coast Law Group, told the board they should have a healthy skepticism over claims by the desalination industry, which he said were not present at the time of the environmental review.
“Poseidon promised the world something we knew in the environmental community they could not follow through with but the regulators blindly looked the other way under the guise of reliability and drought-proof supplies,” Gonzalez said. “But at the end of the day we found a lot of that to be false and now we’re staring down the barrel of a gun.”
California Water Board Considers New Rules for Desalination
Three years after California’s statewide governing body on water resources voted to phase out the use of ocean-water cooling systems by coastal power plants, the agency is now looking at regulating similar water in-takes potentially used by ocean desalination plants.
At issue are projects, most notably two in Southern California by Poseidon Resources, that plan to use the same cooling water in-take pipes as nearby power plants even after those pipes are prohibited for cooling.
Dominic Gregorio, manager of the watershed ocean and wetlands section in the division of water quality, said the board did not purposely exempt desalination plants from the phase-out passed in 2009. They just decided to take on one issue at a time, he said.
“We always knew we would then address the desalination issue,” Gregorio said. “It was really more of an attempt to have a manageable control over the process.”
The State Water Resources Control Board determined in its previous decision that power plant in-take pipes kill 9 million fish, 57 sea lions and other marine life each year. In most cases desalination plants would use much less water than typically would be needed to cool a power plant’s red hot turbines, Gregorio said.
“In terms of volume, it would have less of an impact,” he said. “But a large desal plant can still put a significant amount of water through its system.”
Poseidon’s project in Carlsbad expects to consume around 100 million gallons of seawater per day to produce up to 50 million gallons of freshwater. In addition to water volume, the leftover salts and minerals, called brine, also concern the water board.
In the coming months, the water board will be setting appropriate salinity levels for a given discharge area along with acceptable mitigation plans. When it comes to the in-take pipes, Gregorio dismissed an all-out ban.
“We are going to use the existing state law and implement that state law, that you have to use the best site, design and technology and mitigation,” Gregorio said. “We will use those for criteria. It doesn’t say you are going to ban anything. It says you are going to minimize the impact.”
Regional water quality control boards would then use the state board’s criteria in permitting desalination plants in a given region.
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.