present the value case, the San Diego County Water Authority conducted its own independent
analysis of the various costs and benefits of large-scale desalination.
Its study found that when the Carlsbad facility comes online in 2016, the Water
Authority will pay more for desalinated water than it currently does for the water it
imports. However, it also estimated that by 2025, desalination will be equal in cost or less
expensive than water piped in from other locales.
But it’s that very-long-term value proposition that leads many critics of desalination to
brand it a boondoggle.
For instance, after being wracked with serious drought in the early part of the last
decade, Australia built six huge coastal facilities, some of which remain among the world’s
largest. But the drought subsided just as many of them came online, driving the cost of
water down and obviating the need for more expensive desalination. Four of the six facilities now stand idle.
“That’s certainly the risk—that we build them when they’re not necessary or we build
them, frankly, too soon,” Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific
Institute think tank, told the Los Angeles Times.
But while the cost of water is inconsistent one year to the next, desalination does offer
a reliable supply. That’s one reason the San Diego County Water Authority concluded
that, over time, desalination is a competitive alternative, especially given the county’s
growing population and increased urban sprawl. With the Carlsbad facility online, San
Diego County will have 7 percent of its water supply locked up, irrespective of climate or
In December, Poseidon closed on an additional US$734 million in bond financing
for the Carlsbad facility and the 10-mile (16-kilometer) pipeline that will connect to San
Diego County’s water infrastruc-
ture; construction has begun at
the Carlsbad facility’s six-acre
( 2.4-hectare) site.
Getting the project to this
point certainly wasn’t easy, Mr.
MacLaggan says, but now that
precedents have been set and
a process has been established
among the regulating agencies
and other interests, building a
second desalination facility should
be less challenging.
“I’m convinced that when
Carlsbad goes online in three
years people are going to step
back and say, ‘What was all the
commotion about?’” Mr. MacLaggan says. “If we get water from the
ocean and have little or no impact
by doing so, it will be an improvement over what we’re doing
today. But it’s going to take one of
these plants getting up and operating before people really come to
that realization.” —Clay Dillow
ICE MAY SPARK
Singapore’s SG$200 million plant
provides 10 percent of the city-state’s water needs. A second
desalination plant currently under
construction at Tuas will more than
triple that capacity, boosting the
complex’s total output to 100 million
gallons (379 million liters) per day.
Singapore plans to grow its desalination capacity 10-fold by 2060.
Victorian Project, Wont-
Japan is hoping to find the key to energy
independence at the bottom of the sea.
In March, the Japan Oil, Gas and
Metals National Corporation, a state-run
company, announced it had managed
to unlock natural-gas reserves from
methane hydrate—sometimes known as
“flammable ice”—trapped in ice 1,000
feet (305 meters) below the Pacific
The experimental extraction could
herald a revolution in energy projects in
Japan and beyond, as the carbon deposits
in methane hydrates may be twice as
large as all known oil, gas and coal reserves combined, according to estimates
by the U.S. Geological Survey.
This development comes at a time
when Japan sorely needs new alternative
energy sources. The country is currently the
world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural
gas, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant
explosion abruptly halted plans to ramp up
its nuclear energy projects.
But there are still several obstacles
to overcome. The Japanese government
says flammable ice is at least five years
away from commercial extraction, and
the drilling process is complicated and
expensive. “The next step is to see how
far Japan can get costs down to make the
technology economically viable,” Mikio
Satoh, a Japanese marine geologist, told
The New York Times.