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I’m just back from a very positive meeting between environmental leaders and the mayor, where one of our main points was the need to move forward with a comprehensive agenda for water, energy and development in San Diego.
So, why do so many environmental leaders support reservoir augmentation – one reason is the alternative, seawater desalination, has potentially devastating coastal impacts, mainly due to its natural linkage to OTC power plants.
Before we get into that, we must recognize that desalination is not cost effective … not even close. Without public subsidies, water supplied by desalination would be at least one-and-a-half times more costly than water provided by recycling, and twice what it would cost to conserve the same amount of water.
In fact, the only way desalination at present can even come close to cost-competitive is by “piggy-backing” on antiquated once-though cooling power plants that already take in massive amounts of water. In my last entry, I have already covered why the environmental community is so adamantly opposed to the continued use of seawater for cooling operations.
It is these environmental impacts that have led to OTC being on its death bed. Two state agencies – the State Lands Commission and Ocean Protection Council – have called for the phase-out of OTC power plants in California, and the Coastal Commission and State Water Board are considering similar measures.
Interestingly, the main public opposition to these resolutions did not come from power generators, but from desalination companies who recognize that their technology become obsolete for the near future if OTC plants disappear. Even the power companies that own two of San Diego’s three OTC plants (South Bay and Encina) have publicly stated their intention to replace these facilities with “dry-cooled” technologies. That would deprive desalination of its needed infrastructure.
In addition to incentivizing the continued life of outdated, polluting and highly inefficient power plants, desalination also requires more energy than any other water supply or demand-management option in California. Even with recent technological innovations, it takes .6 megawatts of power to produce 1 MGD of potable water. The only resource that might be in shorter supply than water is energy, and desal simply trades one crisis for another.
OTC is an outdated and highly polluting technology whose last chance at survival is to be coupled with desalination, pitting water supply needs against water quality concerns and energy security. In reality, this is a false choice. San Diego can implement a smart, comprehensive and viable water and energy policy that starts with aggressive conservation programs; replacing antiquated OTC power plants with cleaner, renewable energy sources; and investing in reservoir augmentation to reduce our dependence on imported water.