London’s Desalination Plant – Rainforest in every glass
Thames Water is currently constructing the UK’s first desalination plant (Beckton, East London) due for completion in March 2010. This project has been made possible by a decision by Boris Johnson to drop the legal challenge initiated by Ken Livingston (1).
According to the organisation responsible for the build of the plant, the structure will be able to produce c.140,000 – 150,000 cubic metres of freshwater per day (2), providing enough water for 400,000 homes or 900,000 people. The plant will not, however, operate across the full breadth of the year, rather, it will be used to provide additional support to water supplies when necessary (during periods of drought for example). It will require an investment of c.£250 million to build.
On the face of it, the project sounds reasonable –because surely as a nation we need to ensure we maintain adequate access to drinking water and desalination plants could be part of the answer?
There are, however, a number of environmental issues with this plant that have not been addressed by the Environment Agency in as rigorous detail as this site would want.
Thames Water states that “the plant will be the first in the world to generate all its energy on-site, from renewable sources” (3). In this case the renewable energy they refer to is biofuel a proportion of which is likely to be derived from palm oil, (given that palm oil is the cheapest agrofuel available on the market today).
Desalination as a technology is particularly expensive in terms of energy use. Initial calculations suggest that the amount of energy it takes to process this amount of water (21Mw/hr) would be greater than the entire energy output of the planned (highly controversial) biofuel power station at Beckton (4). The amount of land that is required to service this plant is substantial.
There are a lot of problems associated with the use and manufacture of Biofuel. These include the fact that land use change has negative dramatic implications for climate change, (deforestation or greenhouse gas release from peat bogs for example), pesticide / fertiliser use, land grabbing and human rights abuses, transportation costs and a whole host of indirect and knock on impacts (5).
Irrespective of these points, in this particular case numerous studies have shown that concerns about water shortages are more often than not better answered by thinking less about increasing the volumes of water available and more about improving water management.
Ken Livingston (who originally opposed the plans) stated (6):
“Thames Water should be fixing more leaks rather than finding expensive ways to spend Londoners’ money on making fresh water. They have the worst leakage record in the UK and the water produced by this plant won’t even come close to replacing what they waste every day.
“Londoners are becoming increasingly aware of the need to tackle climate change and reduce water consumption. Last summer we managed to save nearly three times more water than this plant can make through our drought campaigns, a much cheaper and far more sustainable solution to our water supply problems than the proposed desalination plant”.
Indeed, ignoring the build cost of the plant (costs that will probably be indirectly passed on to consumers) the desalination process itself can also be very expensive (7). This ultimately may mean that water bills may rise.
“Adding £200 million to Londoners’ water bills to spend on a technology more appropriate for the desert is simply a disgrace” (Ken Livingston).
Finally, it is incredible that we seem unable to consider wider environmental implications when making local planning decisions. Objections to the type of fuel to be used at Southall biofuel power station (see also the associated action in the campaigning section of this site) were specifically excluded in recent hearings at Ealing town hall. Similarly, wind farms have (infamously) been rejected by locals councils across the country as a result of effective “not in my backyard tactics”. In the case of this desalination plant, the Environment Agency reports that “Thames Water has committed to use only renewable sources of energy to treat the water. This will reduce the carbon footprint of the plant” (6). It is a tragedy that even the organisation entrusted by the public to regulate corporate use of the environment has ignored published scientific research / debate and simply accepted the view promoted by industry. Biofuel may be renewable but it is not “sustainable” (depending on the definition provided) and it does not “reduce the carbon footprint” in the “silver bullet” manner implied.
Concluding thoughts – the organisations that are making decisions on the public’s behalf (the Environment Agency, the Mayor of London’s office etc.) must be held to account for the impact they have at the global scale.
Reponses to this blog are actively invited – we would particularly be interested to hear about any thoughts on future actions around this subject.
(4) 1 cubic metre of freshwater requires 5 kWh equating to 700 MW per day – around 21 MWh.Calculation provided by Biofuelwatch