From the late 1990s through nearly the entire decade that followed, Australia, already a dry place, suffered drought. Short of water and facing the prospect of long-term catastrophe, it embarked on building six major desalination plants.
Powering these plants could have led to a spike in carbon emissions, especially since Australia had long relied on coal for electricity. But according to the National Centre for Excellence in Desalination Australia (NCEDA), that hasn’t happened. Instead, desalination has actually spurred a turn toward renewables in Australia, as water utilities purchased wind energy to offset the power use of all six of the seawater desalination plants.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole of the story on how Australia has and continues to pursue potable water without wrecking Earth. Wind remains in the picture, but a wide range of other projects have been completed, are in the works or are being planned.
Some of these are big projects: In Western Australia, one of the country’s largest solar power stations is going up to supply 10 percent of the energy the Southern Seawater Desalination Plant uses. But NCEDA, with a mandate from the government to “efficiently and affordably reduce the carbon footprint of desalination facilities and technologies” is backing smaller initiatives, as well.
The organization says a remote indigenous community with “a limited brackish water supply” is developing “solar powered vacuum assisted membrane distillation to take hypersaline water and produce fresh water to blend with the brackish source.” This could make a reliable supply of water that meets national guidelines available to the community for the first time.
There’s another project in development that will use waste heat from a mineral processing plant to power a distillation system. “Upon successful completion and development, this will not only supply fresh water to the process and reduce dependence on the environment, but a potential excess wastewater balance will be eliminated,” NCEDA said.