What The Frack? Natural Gas Producer Buys Into Solar

Consol Energy, which produces billions of gallons of wastewater doing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast U.S., is turning for help to a startup that’s got a solar-powered method of purifying water.

Consol said it was investing $500,000 in Epiphany Solar Water Systems. Plus, one of Consol’s Marcellus gas well locations in Greene County, Penn., will serve as a test site for the purification system, which uses concentrated solar power to distill water.

Epiphany Solar Water Systems, Consol Energy, solar water purifying

image via Epiphany Solar Water Systems

Water is a key part of the hydraulic fracturing process, popularly known as fracking. At each site, more than a million gallons are injected into the ground with sand and chemicals at high pressure to crack the Marcellus Shale, according to ProPublica. When the natural gas flows out of the well, large amounts of the now contaminated water also flow back. That water is usually stored in open pits, then trucked to treatment plants.

Consol said it controls a lot of water, and based on its experience of treating some 36 billion gallons of wastewater a year, believes it can actually make a business of water treatment and management for other fracking companies.

Epiphany, Consol said, could give its newly formed Water Division a way to handle wastewater that is far greener than current methods.

“We view Epiphany as another facet of our water management growth strategy, and are very excited about the potential of this green technology and its application to multiple water treatment opportunities,” Consol President Nicholas J. DeIuliis said in a statement.

Epiphany, based in New Castle, Penn., says its proprietary, solar powered water purification process “breaks down flowback water into benign components with marketable value — distilled water, salt and other minerals — plus a small quantity of waste materials that can be safely contained in solid form and readied for safe disposal.”

On its website, Epiphany explains that it uses a parabolic concentrating dish to focus sunlight on a distillation unit. Dirty water is vaporized by the high heat in the distillation unit and in the process, “any dissolved solids (e.g. heavy metals) separate, and living organisms (e.g. bacteria) are killed due the intense heat.”

The clean water vapor then passes through the distillation unit and condenses into distilled water, “safe for consumption,” Epiphany says.

The companies said the pilot of the system will get under way next month, with results expected as soon as this fall.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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