Picture this scene: Rugged fishermen are trolling the sea when their sonar device picks up a signal. They cast their nets, and then rejoice as they pull them in, brimming with their catch. But they haven’t caught bluefin tuna or Atlantic salmon. Instead, they’ve ensnared hundreds of bottles of water. “Harvesting over three billion gallons of freshwater from the sea each year,” the narrator intones. “Water desalination from GE.”
By now you’ve probably seen this commercial, which began airing several months ago. Desalination — removing salt from seawater to make it drinkable — was once dismissed as a fantasy (too expensive, energy greedy, and environmentally unsound). But now it’s considered a practical solution to meeting water demands. “The price of water is going up,” says Tom Pankratz, a desalination consultant and co-author of Desalination.com: An Environmental Primer, “and desalination is growing exponentially.”
The battle for water has already spurred numerous lawsuits in the western U.S., and some 20 California communities are considering new desalination plants. Meanwhile, several Middle Eastern countries have relied on desalination for decades, and Australia has been building its own facilities. And it’s not just the population increases and associated growth in industrialization and farming that are making water scarce — shifting climate patterns are punishing already dry environments. The U.N. predicts that 5.5 billion people will face water shortages by 2025.
That translates into big business. According to a 2006 report by the consulting firm Global Water Intelligence, the market for desalination will grow from $10.9 billion to $126 billion by 2015. A handful of U.S. companies are hoping to tap into this growth. General Electric has hundreds of scientists around the world looking into energy-efficient technologies like desalination, and the company is perfecting a process called reverse osmosis, which forces seawater through a semipermeable membrane to separate freshwater from brine. Refinements in the last decade have improved the technology’s performance, reliability, and efficiency.
The strategy appears to be paying off. “In the last 25 years, the cost to desalinate water has come down by 80 percent,” says Bill Harvey, GE’s global marketing leader for desalination. The company claims reverse osmosis consumes less energy than competing systems, and that plants employing it need up to 25 percent less land. Harvey predicts that just as with the computer industry, the cost of desalination will continue to drop as the technology improves.
For the moment, however, energy is still responsible for a third to half of desalination facilities’ operating expenses, and even the newest systems require an adjacent carbon-burning power plant. But GE is attempting to incorporate renewable energy. This year the company is building a pilot wind-powered desalination plant with Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The system will likely have a backup electric power source for those occasions when the wind doesn’t blow. “The idea is blending—using renewable when it’s available,” says Harvey.
Other improvements soften desalination’s impact on the oceans. Newer facilities use screens on the intake pipes to protect sea life. In addition, the concentrated brine — deadly for marine life because of its high salt concentration — is now usually released offshore, farther from coastal ecosystems.
Another company, Houston-based Water Standard, has designed a shipboard desalination facility that could produce between 5 and 75 million gallons of freshwater daily and pump it back to the mainland. This oceangoing vessel would draw water far enough from shore to avoid harming marine life, dilute the leftover brine with seawater, and then discharge it deep below the surface. Biodiesel may even fuel its jet turbine engines.
For now the design exists only on paper, but the company says it is hoping to close its first deal to build a seawater desalination vessel in the Middle East. Monterey, California, is also considering the scheme.
“Carrying our own power plant means we can serve different locations, reduce our environmental impact, and reduce the cost of desalination,” says Amanda Brock, CEO of Water Standard. “We’re able to produce water where it’s needed.”
Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.