Seawater Desalination Challenges

Posted by 27 Jun, 2013

Introduction

Oceans contain over 97.2% of the planet’s water. Because of the high salinity of ocean water and the significant costs associated with seawater desalination most of the global water supply has traditionally come from fresh water sources – groundwater aquifers, rivers and lakes. Today, however, changing climate patterns combined with population growth pressures and limited availability of new and inexpensive fresh water supplies are shifting the water industry’s attention: in an emerging trend, the world is reaching to the ocean for fresh water.

Until recently, desalination was limited to desert-climate dominated regions. Technological advances and an associated decrease in water production costs over the past decade have expanded its use in coastal areas traditionally supplied with fresh water resources. Today, desalination plants provide approximately 1% of the world’s drinking water supply and the commissioned and installed desalination capacity has been increasing exponentially over the past 10 years.

Higher Productivity Membrane Elements

A key factor that has contributed to the dramatic decrease of seawater desalination costs over the past 10 years is the advancement of the SWRO membrane technology. Today’s high-productivity membrane elements are designed with several features that yield more fresh water per membrane element than any time in the recent history of this technology: higher surface area, enhanced permeability and denser membrane packing. Increasing active membrane leaf surface area and permeability allows it to gain significant productivity using the same size (diameter) membrane element. Active surface area of the membrane elements is typically increased by membrane production process automation, by denser membrane leaf packing and by adding membrane leaves within the same element.

The total active surface area in a membrane element is also be increased by increasing membrane size/diameter. Although 8-inch SWRO membrane elements are still the “standard” size most widely used in full-scale applications, larger 16-inch and 18-inch size SWRO membrane elements have become commercially available over the past three years and have already found full-scale implementation in several SWRO projects worldwide (Bergman & Lozier, 2010).

In the second half of the 1990s, the typical 8-inch SWRO membrane element had a standard productivity of 5,000 to 6,000 gallons per day (gpd) at salt rejection of 99.6%. In 2003, several membrane manufacturers introduced high-productivity seawater membrane elements that are capable of producing 7,500 gpd at salt rejection of 99.75%. Just one year later, even higher productivity (9,000 gpd at 99.7% rejection) seawater membrane elements were released on the market. Over the past three years SWRO membrane elements combining productivity of 10,000 to 12,000 gpd and high-salinity rejection have become commercially available and are now gaining wider project implementation.

The newest membrane elements provide flexibility and choice and allow users to trade productivity and pressure/power costs. The same water product quality goals can be achieved in one of two general approaches: (1) reducing the system footprint/construction costs by designing the system at higher productivity, or (2) reducing the system’s overall power demand by using more membrane elements, designing the system at lower flux and recovery, and taking advantage of newest energy recovery technologies which further minimize energy use if the system is operated at lower (35% to 45%) recoveries.

Innovative hybrid membrane configuration combining SWRO elements of different productivity and rejection within the same vessel which are sequenced to optimize the use of energy introduced with the feed water to the desalination vessels is also finding wider implementation. In addition, a number of novel membrane SWRO train configurations have been developed over the past five years aiming to gain optimum energy use and to reduce capital costs for production of high-quality desalinated water.

Design and Equipment Enhancements for Lower Energy Use

Energy is one of the largest expenditures associated with seawater desalination. Figure 1 shows a distribution of the energy use within a typical seawater desalination plant. As shown on this figure, the SWRO system typically uses over 70% of the total plant energy.

Figure 1 – Energy Use Breakdown of Typical SWRO Desalination Plant

Increased High Pressure Pump Efficiency

One approach for reducing total RO system energy use which is widely applied throughout the desalination industry today is to incorporate larger, higher efficiency centrifugal pumps which serve multiple RO trains. This trend stems from the fact that the efficiency of multistage centrifugal pumps increases with their size (pumping capacity). For example, under a typical configuration where individual pump is dedicated to each desalination plant RO train, high pressure pump efficiency is usually in a range of 80% to 83%. However, if the RO system configuration is such that a single high pressure pump is designed to service two RO trains of the same size, the efficiency of the high pressure pumps could be increased to up to 85%.

Proven design that takes this principle to the practical limit of centrifugal pump efficiency (≈ 90%) is implemented at the 86 MGD Ashkelon seawater desalination plant in Israel, where two duty horizontally split high pressure pumps are designed to deliver feed seawater to 16 SWRO trains at guaranteed long term efficiency of 88%. Continuous plant operational track record over the past 5 years shows that the actual efficiency level of these pumps under this configuration is close to 90%.

A current trend for smaller desalination facilities (plants with fresh water production capacity of 250,000 gpd or less) is touse positive displacement (multiple-piston)high-pressure pumps and energy recovery devices, which often are combined into a single unit. These systems are configured to take advantage of the high efficiency of the positive displacement technology which practically can reach 94% to 97%.

Improved Energy Recovery

Advances in the technology and equipment allowing the recovery and reuse of the energy applied for seawater desalination have resulted in a reduction of 80% of the energy used for water production over the last 20 years. Today, the energy needed to produce fresh water from seawater for one household per year (~2,000 kW/yr) is less than that used by the same household’s refrigerator.

While five years ago, the majority of the existing seawater desalination plants used Pelton Wheel-based technology to recover energy from the SWRO concentrate, today the pressure exchanger-based energy recovery systems dominate in most desalination facility designs. The key feature of this technology is that the energy of the SWRO system concentrate is directly applied to pistons that pump intake seawater into the system. Pressure-exchanger technology typically yields 5% to 15% higher energy recovery savings than the Pelton-Wheel-based systems.

Figure 2 depicts the configuration of a typical pressure exchanger-based energy recovery system. After membrane separation, most of the energy applied for desalination is contained in the concentrated stream (brine) that also contains the salts removed from the seawater. This energy-bearing stream (shown with red arrows on Figure 2) is applied to the back side of pistons of cylindrical isobaric chambers, also known as pressure exchangers (shown as yellow cylinders on Figure 2). These pistons pump approximately 45% to 50% of the total volume of seawater fed into the RO membranes for salt separation. Since a small amount of energy (4 to 6%) is lost during the energy transfer from the concentrate to the feed water, this energy is added back to feed flow by small booster pumps to cover for the energy loss. The remainder (45% to 50%) of the feed flow is handled by high-pressure centrifugal pumps. Harnessing, transferring and reusing the energy applied for salt separation at very high efficiency (94% to 96%) by the pressure exchangers allows a dramatic reduction of the overall amount of electric power used for seawater desalination.In most applications, a separate energy recovery system is dedicated to each individual SWRO train. However, some recent designs include configurations where two or more RO trains are serviced by a single energy recovery unit.

Figure 2 – Pressure Exchanger Energy Recovery System

While the quest to lower energy use continues, there are physical limitations to how low the energy demand could go using RO desalination. The main limiting factors are the osmotic pressure that would need to be overcome to separate the salts from the seawater and the amount of water that could be recovered from a cubic meter of seawater before the membrane separation process is hindered by salt scaling on the membrane surface and the service systems. This theoretical limit for the entire seawater desalination plant is approximately 4.5 kWh/kgal.

Seawater Desalination Cost Trends

Advances in seawater RO desalination technology during the past two decades, combined with transition to construction of large capacity plants, and enhanced competition by using the Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) method of project delivery have resulted in an overall downward cost trend. While the costs of production of desalinated water have benefited from the most recent advances in desalination technology, the cost spread among individual desalination projects observed over the past three years is fairly significant.

Most recently commissioned large seawater desalination projects worldwide produce desalinated water at an all-inclusive cost of US$3.0 to US$5.5/kgal. However, the traditionally active desalination markets in Israel and Northern Africa (i.e., Algeria) have yielded desalination projects with exceptionally low water production costs (110 MGD SWRO Plant in Sorek, Israel – US$2.00/kgal; 87 MGD Hadera Desalination Plant, Israel – US$2.27/kgal; 132 MGD Magtaa SWRO Plant in Algeria – US$2.12/kgal).

On the other end of the cost spectrum, some of the most recent seawater desalination projects in Australia had been associated with the highest desalination costs observed over the past 10 years – i.e., the Gold Coast SWRO Plant in Queensland at US$10.95/kgal; the Sydney Water Desalination Plant at US$8.67/kgal; and the Melbourne’s Victorian Desalination Plant at US$9.54/kgal.

While this extreme cost disparity has a number of site-specific reasons, the key differences associated with the lowest and highest-cost projects are related to five main factors: (1) desalination site location; (2) environmental considerations; (3) phasing strategy; (4) labor market pressures; (5) method of project delivery and risk allocation between owner and private contractor responsible for project implementation.

The desalination projects with highest and lowest costs have a very distinctive difference in terms of project phasing strategy. While the large high-cost projects incorporate single intake and discharge tunnel structures built for the ultimate desalination plant capacity (which often equals two times the capacity of the first project phase), the desalination projects on the low end of the cost spectrum use multi-pipe intake systems constructed mainly from high density polyethylene (HDPE) that have capacity commensurate with the production capacity of the desalination plant. Additional multiple intake pipes and structures are installed as needed at the time of plant expansion for these facilities.

While the single-phase construction of desalination plant intake and outfall structures dramatically reduces the environmental and public controversy associated with the plant capacity expansion at a later date, this “ease-of-implementation” benefit typically comes with an overall cost penalty. The notion that the larger costs associated with building complex intake and outfall concrete tunnels in one phase will somehow be offset by economies of scale usually does not yield the expected overall project cost savings. The main reason is the fact that the cost of 100 linear feet of deep concrete intake or discharge tunnel is over four times higher than the cost of the same capacity intake or discharge constructed from multiple HDPE pipes located on the ocean bottom, while the economy of scale from one-stage construction is usually less than 30%.

Labor market differences can have a profound impact on the cost of construction of desalination projects. The overlapping schedules of the series of large desalination projects in Australia have created temporary shortage of skilled labor, which in turn has resulted in a significant increase in unit labor costs. Since labor expenditures are usually 30% to 50% of the total desalination plant construction costs, a unit labor rate increase of 20% to as high as up to 100%, could trigger sometimes unexpected and not frequently observed project cost increases.

Without exception, the lowest cost desalination projects to date have been delivered under turnkey BOOT contracts where private sector developers share risks with the public sector based to their ability to control and mitigate the respective project related risks.

On the other hand, the most costly desalination projects worldwide have been completed under an “alliance”[(a type of design-build-operate (DBO)] model where the public utility retains the ownership over the project assets but expects the DBO team to take practically all project-related risks. In this case, DBO contractors take upon project risks over which they have limited or no control, by delivering very conservative designs, incorporating high contingency margins in the price of their construction, operation and maintenance services, and by insuring these project risks at very high premiums. As a result, the projects delivered under such structure carry very high contingencies and upfront insurance and performance security payments which ultimately reflect on the overall increase of the cost of water production.

While under a typical BOOT project, the insurance and contingency costs are usually well below 20% of the total capital costs, projects with disproportionate transfer of risk to the private contractor result in built-in insurance and contingency premiums which exceed well over 30% of the total project capital costs. As a result, most often benefits gained from using state-of-the-art technologies, equipment and design, are negated by overly burdensome insurance and contingency expenditures and high cost of project funding.

Seawater Desalination Challenges in US

Water Production Costs

Currently, the cost of desalinating seawater in the US is relatively high compared to that of traditional low-cost water sources (groundwater and river water) and to production costs for water reclamation and reuse for irrigation and industrial use. Indeed, the cost of traditional local groundwater water supplies in some parts of the US are as low as US$0.50/kgal to US$0.90/kgal. However, the quantity of such low-cost sources in coastal urban centers of California, Texas, Florida, South Carolina and other parts of the US exposed to recent long-term drought pressures is very limited.

The generally lower costs for production of reclaimed water and for implementation of water conservation measures have often been used as an argument against the wider use of seawater desalination. This argument however, is fatally flawed by the fact that water conservation and reuse do not create new sources of drinking water – they are merely a rational tool to maximize the beneficial use of the available water supply resources. Under conditions of prolonged drought when the available water resources cannot be replenished at the rate of their use, aggressive reuse and conservation can help but may not completely alleviate the need for new water resources and water rationing.

Typically, seawater desalination cost benefits extend beyond the production of new water supplies. If seawater desalination is replacing the use of over-pumped coastal or inland groundwater aquifers, or is eliminating further stress on environmentally sensitive estuary and river habitats, than the higher costs of this water supply alternative would also be offset by its environmental benefits. Similarly, seawater desalination provides additional benefits in the time of drought where traditional water supplies may not be reliable and their scarcity may increase their otherwise relatively low costs.

Energy Use

Salt separation from seawater requires a significant amount of energy to overcome the naturally occurring osmotic pressure exerted on the reverse osmosis membranes. This in turns makes seawater desalination several times more energy intensive than conventional treatment of fresh water resources. Table 1 presents the energy use associated with various water supply alternatives. The table does not incorporate the costs associated with raw water treatment and product water delivery.

Table 1 – Energy Use of Various Water Supply Alternatives

Capture

While energy use for seawater desalination is projected to decrease by 10 to 20 % in the next 5 years as a result of technological advances discussed previously, the total energy demand for conventional water treatment would likely increase by 15 to 20 % in the same time frame because of the energy demand associated with the additional treatment (such as micro- or ultra-filtration, ozonation, UV disinfection, etc.) which would be needed in order to meet the most recent regulatory requirements for production of safe drinking water in the USA.

Seawater Intakes

A number of the seawater desalination projects under consideration in California and Florida are proposed to be collocated with power generation plants which currently use seawater for production of electricity. Under the collocation configuration the desalination plant does not have a separate intake and discharge to the ocean and both the desalination plant intake and desalination plant discharge are connected to the exiting power plant discharge outfall or canal.

Collocation yields a number of benefits mainly because it avoids construction and permits for new intake and concentrate discharge facilities, and because of the energy cost savings associated with the desalination of warmer source water. However this intake configuration alternative has been considered undesirable by some environmental groups due to the potential loss of marine organisms caused by the impingement of marine organisms against the screens of the power plant intake and their entrainment inside the power plant conveyance and cooling system and subsequently inside the desalination plant.

Based on recently introduced regulatory requirements, the 21 once-through cooling plants along the California coast are required to prepare comprehensive plans for discontinuation of their use of open intakes and switching to air-cooling towers or to water close-circulation cooling towers in order to reduce impingement and entrainment of marine organisms.

Opponents of collocated seawater desalination plants have often present the argument that if the power plant changes its cooling system in the future, seawater desalination under collocated configuration at the particular location would no longer be available. This argument however, is unfounded in reality, because even if the host power plants abandon once-through cooling in the future, the desalination projects will still retain the main cost-benefits of collocation – avoidance of the need to construct a new intake and outfall. The cost savings from the use of the existing power plant intake and outfall facilities would be over 25%, resulting in a significant net benefit with or without the power plant in operation.

Recent studies of wedge-wire screens in Santa Cruz, California indicate that this type of open intake may prove to be a viable alternative for dramatic reduction in impingement and entrainment of marine organisms. Typically, wedge-wire screens are designed to be placed in a water body where significant prevailing ambient cross flow current velocities (³ 1 ft/s) exist. This cross high flow velocity allows organisms that would otherwise be impinged on the wedge-wire intake to be carried away with the flow.

A 2-mm cylindrical wedge wire screen intake is also planned to be tested for one year at the West Basin Municipal Water District’s Ocean Water Desalination Demonstration Facility in Redondo Beach. This demonstration facility is currently under operation.

Various sub-surface intake technologies (i.e., beach wells, horizontally directionally drilled and slant wells and innovative infiltration gallery configurations) have been heavily promoted by the California Coastal Commission and local environmental groups as a viable alternative to power plant collocation and construction of new open intakes along the California coast. Ongoing long-term studies of subsurface intakes in Long Beach and Dana Point, California are expected to provide comprehensive data that would allow completing a scientifically-based analysis of the viability and performance benefits of alternative subsurface intakes.

Concentrate Management

Seawater desalination plants along the US coastline would produce concentrate of salinity that is approximately 1.5 to 2 times higher than the salinity of the ambient seawater (i.e., in a range of 52 ppm to 67 ppm). While most marine organisms can adapt to this increase in salinity, some aquatic species such as abalone, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea bass and top smelt, are less tolerant to high salinity concentrations. Therefore, thorough assessment of the environmental impact of the discharge of concentrate and of any other byproducts of the seawater treatment process is a critical part of the evaluation of project viability.

At seawater desalination projects that are proposed to be collocated with power plants, the desalination plant discharge is planned to be diluted with the cooling water of the power plant to salinity levels that typically do not have significant impact on aquatic life. The magnitude and significance of impact, however, mainly depend on the type of marine organisms inhabiting the area of the discharge and on the hydrodynamic conditions of the ocean in this area, such as currents, tide, wind and wave action, which determine the time of exposure of the marine organisms to various salinity conditions.

Extensive salinity tolerance studies completed over the past several years at the Carlsbad seawater desalination demonstration facility in California indicate that after concentrate dilution with power plant cooling seawater down to 40 ppm or less, the combined discharge does not exhibit chronic toxicity on sensitive test marine species. Recent acute toxicity studies at this facility further show that sensitive marine species can event tolerate salinity of 50 ppm or more over a short period of time (2 days or less).

Some seawater desalination projects are planning to use deep injection wells to discharge the high-salinity seawater concentrate generated during the reverse osmosis separation process. However, the full-scale experience with this concentrate disposal method to date is very limited.

A third disposal alternative, besides injection wells and co-disposal with power plant cooling water, currently under consideration for implementation at a number of seawater desalination projects in the US, is the discharge of the concentrate through existing wastewater treatment plant ocean outfall. International experience with such co-located discharges is fairly limited. However, this technology may have a number of merits similar to these derived from the collocation of desalination and power generation plants.

Proving that concentrate discharge from a seawater desalination plant is environmentally safe requires thorough engineering analysis including: hydrodynamic modeling of the discharge; whole effluent toxicity testing; salinity tolerance analysis of the marine species endogenous to the area of discharge; and reliable intake water quality characterization that provides basis for assessment of concentrate’s make up and compliance with the numeric effluent quality standards applicable to the point of discharge. Comprehensive pilot testing of the proposed seawater desalination system is very beneficial for the project environmental impact analysis.

Summary and Conclusions

Over the past decade seawater desalination has experienced an accelerated growth driven by advances in membrane technology and environmental science. While conventional technologies, such as sedimentation and filtration have seen modest advancement since their initial use for potable water treatment several centuries ago, new more efficient seawater desalination membranes and membrane technologies, and equipment improvements are released every several years. Although, no major technology breakthroughs are expected to bring the cost of seawater desalination further down dramatically in the next several years, the steady trend of reduction of desalinated water production costs coupled with increasing costs of water treatment driven by more stringent regulatory requirements, are expected to accelerate the current trend of increased reliance on the ocean as an attractive and competitive water source. This trend is forecasted to continue in the future and to further establish ocean water desalination as a reliable drought-proof alternative for many coastal communities in the United States and worldwide.

Although seawater desalination projects in the US face a number of environmental challenges, these challenges can be successfully addressed by carefully selecting the project site, by implementing state-of-the art intake and concentrate discharge technologies and by incorporating energy efficient and environmentally sound equipment and systems.

Nikolay Voutchkov, PE, BCEE Water Globe Consulting, LLC, Stamford, CT. Editor of Desalination Technology: Health and Environmental Impacts (2010) IWA Publishing.

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References

GWI – Global Water Intelligence: Market-leading Analysis of the International Water Industry, 10, pp.9, 2009.

Bergman R.A. and J.C. Lozier.“Large-Diameter Membrane Elements and Their Increasing Global Use”. IDA Journal. pp. 16, First Quarter 2010.

Links

Global Water Intelligence
International Desalination Ascociation

Publications

Joseph Cotruvo, Nikolay Voutchkov, John Fawell, Pierre Payment, David Cunliffe, Sabine Lattemann Desalination Technology: Health and Environmental Impacts (2010) IWA Publishing.

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