The energy-water nexus Part II

This is Part II of a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

Another domain in which energy and water concerns collide is in desalination operations. One possible solution to Southern California’s reliance on water pumped over mountains from the north is to make use of the ocean of water breaking onto the local beaches.

A recent blurb in the New York Times announced plans for a desalination facility just north of San Diego that would produce 50 million gallons of water per day — aiming to supply 7 percent of regional demand by 2020. The price tag is roughly a billion dollars. The conversion factor is thus about $20 for every gallon-per-day of capacity (at large-scale; likely fails at the household level).

The estimated cost comes to about $4.80 per hcf, which is higher than the current price of water to the end-user in San Diego. But I’m not knocking it on these grounds: many of our future options will likely be more expensive than the magic carpet ride we’ve enjoyed on the foundation of fossil fuels.

How desalination works

Energetically, the most straightforward approach to desalination is evaporating water and collecting the condensed vapor. Put salt water (or anything moist) in a dark container with clear plastic or glass across the top and place it in the sun. The interior will heat up and evaporate water, which then condenses on the cooler plastic/glass cover. An appropriate sloped-roof geometry allows drip-collection of the water.

A water desalination plant in Brazil

Every gram (mL) of water vapor that escapes its liquid birthplace exacts a toll of 2257 J. This is a bit steep. Heating that same parent gram of water by 1°C only costs 4.18 J — which is why a pot of boiling water takes ages to boil away to nothing (see post on boiling water efficiency). A brute force approach like this would demand 2.4 kWh of thermal energy for every gallon of water produced (or 633 kWh/m³)!

Until I did the math, I dreamed of flowing ocean water through a system of shallow, covered trenches, generating fresh evaporated condensate. Low-tech, solar-driven, lovely! We might optimistically capture 50 percent of the incoming solar energy in the trough-collector, so that each square meter receiving about 5 kWh/day of incident energy could result in one gallon of water. Producing 10 percent of California’s demand would then require an area 60 km on a side, or a strip of land along California’s entire coastline about 2.5 km wide. Let’s call that infeasible. Darn.

But there are back doors. For one, waste heat from power plants (including nuclear) can be used as the source of energy in a form of co-generation. Also, water can be made to boil vigorously at room temperature in a mostly evacuated system once the pressure drops to about one-fortieth of an atmosphere (~20 Torr). In this scheme, it would take about 34 kWh to pump out 1,000 L (1 m³) of water molecules against this pressure differential: a bargain compared to the 633 kWh/m³ from direct heating.

A GE water desalination plant in Brazil

Most desalination plants use the multi-stage flash distillation process, which employs low-pressure chambers and recovers much of the heat of vaporization as the vapor condenses on the feedwater intake pipes, reducing the amount of direct heating required. These devices tend to achieve about 18–25 kWh/m³, which, again, is a bargain compared to direct heating.

Finally, reverse osmosis (RO) is another option, forcing water through membranes that exclude the saline ions. Typical RO installations achieve about 5–7 kWh/m³ (see, for instance, here or here). But the osmosis approach requires high-grade electricity, which if produced in the traditional manner requires about 17 kWh of thermal energy input per cubic meter of water produced. So really these prevalent techniques are not tremendously different energetically, although perhaps the osmosis approach is more finicky in terms of water preparation/filtering, gunked up membranes, etc.  RO wins out energetically if the electricity is from non-thermal sources (wind, solar, hydro).

Large scale desalination in California?

Okay, so now that we have an idea about how desalination is really done, what would it mean from an energetic standpoint if California tried to fulfill a substantial fraction of its water demand from desalination? I’ll use the approximate value of 20 kWh/m³ (thermal) hereafter.

Let’s start with San Diego’s effort to replace 7 percent of water demand in its 50 MGPD plant. This works out to 160 MW of thermal power. For scale, the San Diego region uses electricity at an average rate of 2.3 GW. So we’re talking a noticeable amount. Extrapolating to 100 percent desalination for San Diego, we get to 2.3 GW thermal, which would substantially increase local power generation demand. Economically, about half of the negotiated $4.80/hcf cost is in energy. It works out to 15 years to recoup the construction cost for the plant under the (poor) assumption of constant prices.

Don Pedro Dam, 1970

What about California as a whole? San Diego county is not a heavy agricultural center, so the problem will get harder if trying to satisfy the state’s needs (and therefore the country’s food needs given the national-scale importance of California’s agriculture). California uses 46 billion gallons of water per day. Supplying 25 percent of this via desalination would require 36 GW of thermal-equivalent power. California runs on 30 GW of electricity, and a total energy budget of 262 GW (thermal; from oil, gas, coal, hydro, nuclear, etc.—according to the EIA). That’s a substantial amount for 25 percent of our water needs.

Another way to slice this problem is to ask what fraction of California’s water could be provided by using the amount of energy that currently goes into pumping water around the state. We use 20 billion kWh of annual electricity for pumping, translating to about 6.5 GW of continuous thermal power. This amount of thermal power could meet 4.5 percent of California’s water needs via desalination. When we currently spend 8 percent of our electricity delivering 100 percent of our water, and would only meet 4.5 percent of our water needs by the same energy investment directed to desalination, we can appreciate the crunch.

Will the Nexus Vex Us?

What a surprise — the world is a complicated place with interdependencies. Is the water-energy connection more than an academically interesting tangle? I think so. Water is undeniably important to our physical survival, and energy is the main physical ingredient in our development of modern society. Shortages in either could have major impacts, and their entanglement means that a shortage in one could trigger a shortage in both. Seems like a problem — especially in light of increasing population pressure and intensifying effects of climate change.

Of course my “solution” is frequently to ask why we need as much energy or water or you-name-it-resource as it seems that we do. The fact that I live a perfectly functional life using less than 20 percent as much electricity, gas, and water as my San Diego cohort sure seems to suggest a viable path away from the crunch.

The good news in all of this is that when faced with difficult limitations, economic factors will assert themselves via the beloved mechanism of skyrocketing prices. People will naturally react by cutting back significantly, as my experience indicates is clearly possible. I am confident that San Diego could still function on a drastically reduced water budget, if needed. Every 60 ft² of roof area in San Diego collects enough rain to provide a gallon per day averaged over the year (1.4 m² collects 1 L/day). So thirst shouldn’t be a problem, even for a few million people. I’m not so optimistic about the odds of grass and ornamental plants surviving serious cutbacks. So while survival is not at stake, our accustomed ways of life may well be endangered.

The bad news is that we appear to be incapable as a society of reacting to a looming situation before economic forces drive us to change. By that time, we have often lost precious years to prepare for a new reality. We tend to want proof that something is a problem before we alter course. Not the smartest of approaches, in my book.

Ironically, the political “conservatives” tend to be the most resistant to conserving resources or approaching the future with a conservative, low risk mindset. Growth trumps caution. A key philosophical difference may lie in one’s sense of whether growth solves problems (debt, hunger, unemployment), or creates them. The answer does not have to be static — especially in a world of finite resources transitioning from the “empty” to the “full” state. We may well see an evolution from a world in which “growth the solution” more and more is perceived as “growth the problem.” I think attitudes are already shifting in this direction.

This post originally appeared on Tom Murphy’s blog, Do the Math: Using physics and estimation to assess energy, growth, options.

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and Ph.D. student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics.