Protesters at California Coastal Commission meeting on November 13, 2013 (photo: Amy Taxin, Associated Press)
Fears that a proposed $900 million desalination plant in Huntington Beach will be an energy draining, financial white elephant that wrecks the environment prompted the California Coastal Commission last week to put a hold on the project six years after approving a similar plant 60 miles away in Carlsbad.
The Carlsbad plant is under construction now, but in the years since its approval real world experience with desalination has highlighted the technology's shortcomings. The escalating cost of energy to run the plant, millions of sea creatures being sucked into its saltwater intake valves and other environmental problems (like concentrated brine being returned to the ocean) have given the commission pause.
Poseidon Resources, the small-privately held company that is building the Carlsbad plant, wants to construct one in Huntington Beach that would take about 127 million gallons of saltwater a day out of the ocean to provide around 50 million gallons of fresh water. Unfortunately, the process also pulls in around 90 million sea creatures a year with it.
Environmentalists proposed using another technique that draws the water from the ocean floor, but Poseidon officials say it is too costly, will cause more damage to the seabed and won't work in Huntington Beach. Poseidon Vice President of Development Scott Maloni called it a “poison pill” that would kill the project.
The plant would be designed to suck in less saltwater by tapping water already used to cool a nearby power plant. But that water becomes heated in the plant-cooling process and causes major environmental damage when returned to the ocean. (It kills huge amounts of plankton, fish eggs and larvae.) In 2010, the state passed a law that phases out that process by 2020.
A commission staff report (pdf) said the project would “discharge effluent with salinity concentrations that are harmful to marine life, and cause adverse direct and indirect effects on wetlands on and near the project site. Additionally, the facility site is subject to a number of significant coastal and geologic hazards, including floods, tsunami, surface fault rupture, ground movement, liquefaction, lateral soil spread, and others.”
It recommended that the commission approve the project if Poseidon switched to ocean floor water intake.
Huntington Beach, like many communities in the state, is facing the prospect of much higher water bills in the future as global warming exacerbates already pressing water shortage issues. But the bid to find stable sources of water conflicts with the prospect of much higher energy costs to run the plants.
Desalination plants are in operation around the world where the geography, economics and politics are more favorable, but they have yet to catch on in North America. There are about 250 plants in the U.S. that use desalination on a limited basis, with nearly half located in Florida and most of the rest in Texas and California. Around a dozen larger plants in the United States are currently under consideration, including several near San Francisco, Carmel and Monterey.
The country's largest operating desalination plant was built by Poseidon in Tampa, Florida, in 2003 but the company was never able to get it running properly and another operator eventually took over after the city bought them out. The plant was closed between 2005 and 2008, and operates on a limited bases now, which makes the actual cost of the fresh water produced more expensive.
The commission voted unanimously to send Poseidon back to the drawing board to come up with an alternate plan that considers drawing water from the sea floor among the options. PoseidonThat study should take at least six months. In the meantime, Poseidon withdrew its permit application.