Drought Prompts Australia to Turn to Desalination Despite Cost

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Workers walk across the undulating synthetic covering on the rooftop of the reverse osmosis process building at the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant, in Wonthaggi, Australia. Close

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Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Workers walk across the undulating synthetic covering on the rooftop of the reverse osmosis process building at the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant, in Wonthaggi, Australia.

Bloomberg BNA -- Severe drought and climate change have prompted many of Australia's major cities to construct large-scale desalination plants to provide a rainfall-independent source of drinking water.

“The driver for desalination in Australia has been very simple,” Australian Water Association Chief Executive Tom Mollenkopf told BNA March 1. “We have just emerged from 10 to 15 years of incredibly low rainfall—what became known as the ‘millennium drought.’”

Australia, he said, has been known for the great variability in its rainfall “with long periods of dry interspersed with very wet periods.” However, the country is experiencing its deepest dry period in more than a 100 years, he said.

“The consequence of that is that our traditional reliance on rainfall and surface water for our urban populations has exposed a real weakness in our water supply security,” Mollenkopf said.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, and the Bureau of Meteorology anticipates that climate change will result in less rainfall in the most populated areas—the southeast and the southwest.

First Desalination Plant Commissioned in 2006

Australia's first major seawater desalination plant was commissioned in 2006 to service the west coast city of Perth, which has long faced serious water security problems, and produces 45 gigalitres (GL) a year. This was followed in 2011 by a second plant that currently produces 50GL a year, and which is undergoing a fast-tracked expansion due to low rainfall that will double its capacity to 100GL.

Perth has continued to experience low rainfall and consequently “what you see is a high degree of public acceptance” of the technology despite the associated costs, Mollenkopf said.

Adelaide, the South Australian state capital, has a new 100GL plant that is already producing water, although it is not yet operating at full capacity. A desalination facility in the heavily populated southeast of the state of Queensland can produce 48GL.

The most recent addition to Australia's suite of desalination plants is also the largest and the most controversial—the Wonthaggi desalination plant commissioned in December that is capable of providing the east coast city of Melbourne (the nation's second largest city) with a third of its water supply.

The A$3.5 billion ($3.6 billion) plant is capable of producing 150GL of drinking water annually.

The former Victoria state government offered the project to two shortlisted bidders in 2008—when Melbourne's dams were at critically low levels as a result of long running drought. The timing also coincided with the global financial crisis, which made securing funding for such a large infrastructure project particularly complex.

Public-Private Partnership

The plant was built by a public-private partnership, but heavy rains during construction caused significant delays in completing the project and boosted water at the dams to levels that make desalination unnecessary. Thus, the plant has been in standby mode.

Nevertheless, water consumers are already paying for the currently idle plant through water bill surcharges, which has created hostility to the project, and Victoria's current state government has sought to capitalize on community concerns about the cost of and need for the plant.

Under the contract signed by the former state government, the forecast annual payment to the plant's operator for the 2012-13 financial year is A$654 million [$670 million], “and that is without one drop of water being drawn from the plant,” Victoria state premier Ted Baillieu said on Feb. 28.

If the plant had been running at full capacity, the payment for 2012-13 would have been about A$763 million ($781 million), Baillieu said. These costs demonstrate the former government's “incompetence and mismanagement,” he said.

Meanwhile, the $1.9 billion ($1.96 billion) 91GL desalination plant in the east coast city of Sydney, commissioned in January 2010, is also now in standby mode because water levels at the dam reached 80 percent. Officials with the New South Wales state government, which in May last year successfully refinanced the Sydney plant for A$2.3 billion ($2.37 billion), said it will start operations again if and when dam levels fall to 70 percent.

“What has happened on the east coast is that there has actually been quite a lot of rainfall over the last few years and we've found that those big investments are in large measure sitting there idle,” Mollenkopf said.

“With the advantage of hindsight we can now say ‘well, even though we came perilously close to running out of water, if we'd just waited for another 12 months or another two years we might have been able to defer the construction of this plant or we might have been able to build a plant that wasn't quite as large,’?” he said.

Mollenkopf added that in Victoria, hostility to the Wonthaggi plant had been exacerbated because “desalination became a political issue.”

“It was used in the last state election as a weapon by the new government to attack the former government,” he said.

Desalination is an expensive option, Mollenkopf said, “and unless you can get bipartisan political support it can always degenerate into a political bunfight.”

Nevertheless, Mollenkopf said the technology would prove a critical component of efforts to ensure the nation's cities have enough drinking water.

“Desalination is, I think, well entrenched now in the supply systems for our major coastal cities,” he said. “It may be that they won't be turned on 24/7 that they may only be required three or five years out of 10. But I believe that they will be a very important part of our domestic supply security.”

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