Ras Abu Fontas B Power and Desalination Plant in Qatar.
WAVE OF THE FUTURE?
Closer to home, Dare County in the Outer Banks operates
four reverse osmosis plants that desalinate brackish water from
shallow ground sources and estuaries.
Those are not isolated examples. The International
Desalination Association says about 300 million people world-wide
get some freshwater from more than 17,000 desalination
plants in 150 countries.
There are a couple of obstacles keeping more plants from being
One is extremely salty brine discharge left behind from the
reverse osmosis process.
“Discharge is a really hot topic with desalination,” Sonnett
says. “People have asked me if desalination became a big thing
aren’t we going to raise the salinity of the ocean? And the answer,
technically, is yes. But really the answer is no. If you are dump-ing
a bunch of salt water where it’s stagnant and can’t wash away,
yeah it can accumulate significant amounts of salt and that can
have negative impacts on the environment. If you put it in a place
that’s offshore with lots of currents to sweep it away, the ocean is
so massive there is no way that if all the water in the world was
generated from desalinity you would notice a difference.”
A hefty price tag remains the major deterrent.
“It’s so expensive because it requires so much energy,” says
Sonnett, who became a research and development engineer at
Corning after shutting down SAROS in July 2017. “The only
reason desalination exists is because that’s the only option some
places. You don’t desalinate water for fun. If there’s water you can
collect from rain or from a well in a ground, you definitely do
that first. As a last resort, a lot of places turn to desalination.”
New Hanover County currently is not subject to water short-ages.
Most households get their water from the Cape Fear. While
it must be treated for pollution, it is plentiful. It would take
unprecedented droughts for an extended period of time for the
river to run dry. There’s no financial incentive to turn to the
Atlantic and desalination.
So while desalination is increasingly a solution in parts of the
world that have little alternatives, a large-scale effort to take the
seawater off the Southeast Carolina coast and turn it into fresh-water
is still sometime in the future.
“Nobody’s created that perfect cost-feasible solution yet,”