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Is Desalination Sustainable?

Desalination. there's a word for you. For those of you who are not familiar with the water crisis and the industry, desalination is the process of removing salt from water to make it drinkable.

Sounds like an awesome idea and a great solution to the water crisis, right? Not so fast... There are many issues with desalination that make it a big issue throughout the world.

Let me explain a little more if you'll permit me. If you'd rather read the conclusion and call if good, skip to the end. That's what I do.... :)

First off, to give some context. The whole world is in a huge fresh water availability crisis. With many countries already at the end of their rope when it comes to finding fresh drinking water, many have turned to groundwater wells.

Here is an image that depicts the average cost per acre foot of water. an Acre-foot of water is one acre of space, under one foot of water, or, for easier numbers, 325,850 gallons of water.

Groundwater wells, when used excessively, will deplete the water table, leading to rivers and lakes running dry. When rivers run dry, where do people turn for fresh water? Well, some have suggested desalination as a solution to this major problem.

The problems with desalination usually round off to a few main points.

1.) It's expensive

2.) It takes a long time to develop and build the facilities

3.) Environmental permitting is a nightmare

4.) Energy costs are extremely high

5.) Desalination results in a byproduct called brine.

(Brine is essentially, super super salty water with other minerals in it that doesn't support life, and is somewhat useless otherwise)

So to answer the question, Is Desalination Sustainable?, we must respond to each of the concerns listed above in a way that may provide insight to the potential solutions. This would open the door for a discussion on the environmental, social, and financial concerns that desalination poses.

Below are my responses.

1.) New technology is always expensive. As the technology develops, the cost will go down because of the availability of the materials and components, and efficiency.

2.) Facilities can be big or small. I believe that the bigger the facility, the more efficient the process can be, but obviously that means bigger costs. Maybe if would be possible to build many smaller facilities rather than one large facility. Each coastal city or county could provide it's own water. This is obviously a huge change to the current system, but once the growing pains are over, the process may be extremely efficient. Companies and water districts could even sublease the infrastructure that is already in place.

3.) Environmental permitting is a pain because we haven't found other efficient methods for disposal. I believe that salty brine should be pumped overboard from container ships that are empty on their voyage back to Singapore or wherever they come from. It would result in an overall equal distribution of the salt back into the ocean, thus resulting in a net zero dilution or saltification of the ocean (that means progressively making the ocean more salty which is a bad thing).

4.) Energy costs need to be supplemented by renewable energies. In fact, I'll bet that there is a way to recycle energy that is used by the desalination process. Desalination is the process of reverse osmosis, or forcing salty water through a tube that has holes in it that are only big enough for water molecules to fit through, but not salt or other mineral molecules. I always wondered if it would be possible to have an undersea facility that uses the pressure of ocean water to do desalination with no energy costs. One other alternative energy that is never far from a desalination facility is tidal power. Tidal power is awesome because it is endless, accessible, and powerful! There is a ton of potential energy in waves. If we utilized tidal power, solar power, wind power, bio-solids, and geothermal power to provide energy to desalination plants, then the costs of energy would only be high initially, and then they would be free. This is one of the biggest problems for sustainability. Up-front-costs are almost always higher than expected. But this leads to significantly cheaper costs in the future.

5.) Similar to what I said in number 3, the best way to dispose of salty brine is back where it came from. since every ounce of water that we use on land will eventually find its way back to the ocean, the process of slowly pumping saltwater into the ocean over the course of multiple days, in theory, shouldn't cause any environmental damages. but that's a massive study that should be done. Once that study is complete, the environmental permitting costs and the solution for the disposal of this waste material is found and the whole process becomes way cheaper.

Whats the biggest issue with desalination though?

Mainly, it's simply the cost.

What's the sustainable solution?

Mainly, the use of alternative energy, the open-mindedness to change current systems that have been in place for hundreds of years, and the willingness to actually do it.

Why should I care?

Because this will, one day, lead to your door step. Whether you're a farmer who has to cut back on water, or a person in the city who needs to stop watering your lawn. Those are the simple and easy cases if you ask me. There are people around the world who die every day because of lack of access to fresh water. If we develop sustainable solutions, back them with out investments, and follow through with the application of the solution, then the problem will slowly get fixed.

This is the main problem from the sustainability point of view. The world is in trouble and we need to act fast! The Huntington Beach Desalination Plant called Poseidon took almost 20 years to construct and begin operation from the time the concepts were drawn up. This process needs to be significantly faster than that even in other countries if this is to work.

In Conclusion:

Here is where you pick up if you didn't feel like reading my regurgitation.

Desalination is a major solution to a world wide problem with a few caveats. I believe that this technology is ahead of it's time. Based on the cost and the time required in order to implement the technology, is not currently financially viable for most cities... Socially and environmentally, however, I believe this technology to be on point! I think that with the coming years of struggle and the increasing intensity of the water shortages that have been going on world wide, that desalination plants, both large and small will find an incredibly important place in the market and hopefully make major strides in the sustainability industry.

Thanks for reading!

I would love to hear your comments!

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