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Vern here. As dissenting OC Water Board member Phil Anthony told us recently, if Orange County decided we really needed a desalination plant, “we could make it quicker, cheaper and better than Poseidon would,” given our world-famous Groundwater Replenishment System. Here, our friend geologist John R. Hoaglund III presents a technology – a proven, patented technology – which would make Poseidon’s project better, more efficient, and less polluting; but will Poseidon listen? Thus far they’ve rejected any constructive ideas that would compromise their short-term profits. But if they don’t listen to Dr. Hoaglund, and their project for one reason or another doesn’t happen, we may still have a chance to try his idea ourselves some day.
Poseidon and AES: Don’t dump your daily 175 railroad hopper cars of salt into the ocean. Use it to lock up your daily 120 railroad hopper cars of CO2 emissions.
by John R. Hoaglund, III, Ph.D.
Dr. Hoaglund taught hydrogeology, environmental geology, and glacial and climate geology at the University of Michigan, then joined Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute involved in coupled hydrological / climatological modeling research. He moved to California in 2007 into private environmental and sustainability consulting. He is the founder and principal hydrogeologist of Carbon Negative Water Solutions, LLC.
Desalination is the name given for several alternative processes by which energy is used to remove salt from saline water, even water as highly concentrated as seawater, or brine. It is already a part of the treatment of lesser concentrated waste water and brackish water by Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWS), the Irvine Desalter (IDS), and Los Angeles County’s Water Replenishment District (WRD). Poseidon is nearing completion of a seawater desalination facility in Carlsbad, California, and is awaiting approval from the California Coastal Commission for a similar facility proposed near the AES power plant at Newland and PCH in Huntington Beach. Though AES, an energy company, is cooperating with Poseidon, a water company, on the use of property and infrastructure, the project is Poseidon’s, and the issues still being litigated are political, economic and environmental.
The political debate continues with strong institutional support for the plant duking it out with strong grassroots opposition. The economic aspect remains muddy, with the OC Water District’s proposed term sheet somewhat compromised by their challenge in finding “customers” for the expensive water. The Coastal Commission’s decision focuses on the environment, and the environmental debate—both pro and con—includes issues of energy, associated carbon emissions, “choose your fish”, coastal development, aesthetics, and brine disposal. Cooperation between any two otherwise unrelated economic entities is both unusual and commendable, even if the arrangement is mutually beneficial. However, if they can further work together, possibly involving a few other individual economic entities, it may be possible to solve two of the environmental issues associated with the desalination simultaneously: specifically the carbon emissions from its energy use, and the disposal of its brine.
While the drought may be forcing us to consider our water use and look for alternative sources of water, it is also providing a “teachable moment” into the economic connection between clean water, energy, CO2, climate, and the environment generally. It’s telling that we are considering using the ocean – long considered our trash can – along with considerable amounts of energy for potable water production, just at the same time we are concerning ourselves with the arrival of radionuclides leaked from a power plant, Fukishima. We don’t have to go as far as Japan to find examples of ocean discharge of human wastes. Chemical and sewage treatment plants, with concomitant discharges, are located near the mouth of the Santa Ana River, a mile and a half away from the ocean intakes proposed for the plant. A general swimming advisory is posted for the river where it enters the sea. The desalination process itself, along with post-treatment of the water will remove these contaminants from the drinking water, just as they do for the wastewater treatment of the Groundwater Replenishment System. But make no mistake. The proposed 2:1, brine-to-seawater salt concentration ratio will also double the concentration of any ocean chemical contaminant in the brine—called “concentrate.” Concentrate disposal is a regulated waste disposal.
The Poseidon facility will be removing substantially more salt than the GWS, IDS, or WRD combined. Though fairly uniform in its salt concentration around 35,000 ppm (parts per million), seawater is quite a bit more concentrated than either wastewater or brackish water around 1,000 ppm. Thus seawater desalination takes substantially more energy. As a major consumer of electricity, the proposed project would be an “indirect carbon emitter.” The California Coastal Commission is requiring Poseidon to provide a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions Plan (GHG Plan). Let’s take a quick look at the connection between the salt removed, the energy consumed, and the CO2 emitted. The proposed Poseidon design will draw 130 mega-gallons per day (MGD) of seawater to produce 65 MGD of freshwater and 65 MGD of brine concentrated to twice the level of seawater (70,000 ppm). To equate the brine and freshwater volumes to corresponding values of salt content and energy consumption, cubic meters will be used for bookkeeping; the 65 MGD is the same as 246,000 cubic meters per day.
How much salt is in the brine? First envision making two liters of seawater in a 2-liter soda bottle. Though seawater is comprised of several salts, table salt is a good enough approximation. Take a tenth of the salt content of a typical grocery store cylinder of salt (a tenth of its height) and dissolve it into a 2-liter soda bottle of water and you’ve got a good approximation of 2 liters of seawater. Now press all the freshwater through filters into one liter half, leaving the brine in the other half. Do this on 1,000 bottles and you’ve just created a cubic meter of freshwater that you can separately tap into 500 of the 2-liter bottles. You’ve also just created a cubic meter of brine from approximately 100 grocery store cylinders of salt (70 kg) that will be left in the other 500 bottles. Repeat the process producing 246,000 cubic meters per day (65 MGD) and you produce 17,500 metric tons of salt per day, about 175 railroad hopper cars full of salt per day.
How much energy does this take? It takes about 4 kwatt-hrs of electricity—the equivalent of 0.11 gallons of gasoline —to produce the cubic meter of freshwater using reverse osmosis (RO), the method proposed at Poseidon. The energy input is converted by electric engines into mechanical energy to pump water through filters and membranes. For the 246,000 cubic meters per day, this translates to about a million kwatt-hrs per day, which is about 4.5% of the 900 megawatt maximum daily output of the AES power plant. For comparison, it takes the GWS, IDS, and WRD about 1 kwatt-hr using the same method for the desalination of their lesser-concentrated wastewater and brackish water. Of note, it also takes the State Water Project an equivalent 4 kwatt-hrs of electricity, also converted by electric engines into mechanical energy, to pump a cubic meter of freshwater up the 444 miles of the California Aqueduct. The fact that the RO desalination energy and the aqueduct pumping energy are the same is not coincidental to the advent of desalination in California. Energy dictates economics, it controls, “the movements of commerce and industry,” and desalination has only recently become energy competitive. The only difference is that the California Aqueduct infrastructure is already in place whereas the desalination infrastructure is just getting started. Already California’s water infrastructure consumes, “20% of the state’s electricity consumption.” The question is often raised, “Could we use another method, e.g. use solar heat energy for desalination by distillation?” The answer is “yes” but it takes more energy—about 17 kwatt-hrs—to produce that cubic meter of freshwater using distillation desalination methods. Still [pun intended] it is a viable option. Though more energy intensive, distillation desalination plants are the most common worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. Why? Not all energy is equal economically. Heat is often abundant and cheap, whereas electrical and mechanical energy must account for other energy lost in its creation, energy moving from available to unavailable, that’s entropy.
How much CO2 is produced? If only natural gas is used in the electrical production, the emission conversion typically used is 0.55 kg (or 1.21 pounds) of CO2 per kwatt-hr of electricity. That would be the case if the electricity was provided by the AES natural gas power plant itself. But the electrical energy going into the Poseidon plant is coming from the grid generally, not necessarily the AES power plant directly. The relationship between AES and Poseidon is in the sharing of property and existing infrastructure only. The CO2 emission to kwatt-hr conversion factor from the general electrical grid is higher due to the contribution of coal, still producing over 40% of the nation’s electricity with about double the CO2 emission rate of natural gas. Carbon is a global “non-point” pollution problem, but it can only be addressed by reducing carbon emissions point source by point source. The 900 megawatt maximum capacity of the AES natural gas plant is a point source of about 12,000 metric tons of CO2 per day [4.36 million metric tons per year] of which Poseidon’s 4.5% consumption corresponds to about 540 metric tons CO2 per day [about 198,000 metric tons per year]. With AB-32 in place, California now regulates CO2 emissions in excess of 25,000 metric tons per year.
I am not opposed to the desalination plant. Contrary to the claim within the famous “Move to the Food” comic routine by the late Sam Kinison, we have deserts in America and we DO live in them. We are living in a desert engineered to our liking. We either continue engineering our desert or we move both ourselves and the food to where both can be grown without irrigation. Though desalination is expensive, most of the expense is for new infrastructure when compared to the aqueducts whose infrastructure is already in place, owing to the foresight of previous generations. Though desalination is only slated to provide 7% of Orange County’s water needs for the foreseeable future, we must have the foresight to diversify our water portfolio, just as much as the foresight to diversify our energy portfolio. Fossil fuels still provide 85% of our energy needs. Not counting hydrological energy from dams, renewables provide only 3%. But no one, save those completely beholden to the fossil fuel industry, is saying we should give up on renewables when they haven’t yet been fully developed. Coal still provides over 40% of our electrical generation, a considerable source of CO2 emissions at 0.97 kg per kwatt-hr op cit 10, and though coal electrical production is down from over 50% prior to 2007 (see reference #32 on sidebar of footnote), most of that electrical production has been replaced by natural gas, including the AES power plant. Renewables still have a long way to go. Natural gas is still a significant CO2 emitter at 0.55 kg per kwatt-hr op cit 10.
That climate thing, do we really need to limit our CO2 emissions? If climate change from increasing energy use is decreasing water availability, thus increasing energy use to obtain water, the feedback loop is an irony rising to the level of a cruel joke. Though droughts are normal occurrences, and though single meteorological events and trends, including droughts, are not evidence of climate change, climate change is projected to intensify the Hadley cell, intensifying the high pressure cell that sits over and desiccates the American southwest,. A colder climate during the ice ages parked a low pressure cell here, giving the region a pluvial climate that filled the desert basins with freshwater lakes, and Rancho La Brea with wetland homes for mastodons. Unfortunately the human-induced climate change is in the other direction, with projections calling the odds of decade-long droughts a near certainty, and that of a mega-drought, lasting 35 years or more, a 50/50 proposition over the next century,. The key word in climate change is “change.” Some regions of the world are going to benefit, but overall, the US is not one of them. The projections of climate change spell disaster for US agriculture, both here in California op cits 19, 23, and the rest of our breadbasket,. Our elected officials try very hard not to understand this, including our representative from Orange County. When ignorance and obfuscation doesn’t work there’s always the censorship option. Executive branch officials in the governments of Florida and Wisconsin can’t even use the words “climate change”, leading them into absurd discussions with their legislatures. Meanwhile the rest of us have moved on to dealing with the reality and planning for it. In my own profession, every California water project requires climate change impact assessments. At the same time, the Pentagon is studying such things as how to protect the U.S. given a navigable ice-free Northwest Passage, now opened enough to plan yacht races. Climate change is a threat to national security. You would think we would be leading the world in the call for climate change abatement. Instead we’re dragging our feet.
We must sequester (lockup) our carbon before it is emitted. To be fair to the politicians, we must acknowledge two factors that contribute to the foot dragging: 1) carbon sequestration technologies are still only in various stages of research, development, testing, pilot study, and initial applications; and most importantly, 2) there’s an energy penalty associated with ALL carbon sequestration techniques, another ironic energy-requiring-energy feedback. Entropy always increases: available energy in the form of concentrated matter (such as compressed gases) and compounds with high chemical potential energy (such as fuels) always moves to unavailable energy in the form of diffuse matter (such as expanded gases) and stable compounds with low chemical potential energy (such as CO2). The result is that energy has to be used to re-concentrate CO2, transport it, and/or make something useful with it. Even the simple act of gathering CO2 and storing it is energy intensive. Meanwhile as noted above, we’re still 85% dependent on fossil fuels.
Carbon sequestration can be categorized as either 1) preventive, capturing CO2 before it is emitted, or 2) remedial, removing CO2 already existing in the atmosphere. Remedial carbon sequestration, along with solar radiation management, is part of geo-engineering: human interventions proposed or implemented to modify climate. Preventive carbon sequestration is part of climate mitigation: actions or policies aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the first place. Remedial measures commonly become the subject of conspiracy theories. Preventive measures, including what is proposed here, seem more acceptable and are more technologically feasible, thus far outweigh remedial measures in terms of actual R-&-D effort and existing applied applications. Either way, once CO2 is captured from the air (remedial) or from a point source (preventive), the sequestration options—what to do with the carbon—generally fall into 4 categories: 1) storage, usually by underground injection, 2) uptake by biota, either for temporary storage or biofuel, 3) incorporation of the carbon into manufactured commodities, and 4) mineralization. Of the four, only mineralization provides a permanent solution, at least on the order of millions of years of sequestration. Mineralization is how the Earth naturally sequesters carbon in its multi-million year carbon cycle.
The California Coastal Commission is requiring a GHG mitigation plan, and Poseidon plans to use carbon offsets to comply: “Poseidon says it is offsetting carbon emissions by purchasing renewable energy credits and reforesting a state park, among other measures.”op cit 14. “Offsettting” and “Cap and trade” and are typical regulatory approaches to “non-point” pollution. Environmental science differentiates between emissions coming from single point sources versus “non-point” pollution that comes from collective human activity. Participation in offset markets is a typical compliance response to a host of environmental issues, requiring companies to economically balance carbon, other pollution emissions, as well as other environmental impacts, by contributing to unrelated projects elsewhere, such as renewable energy projects considered carbon neutral, or the creation of artificial wetlands to balance their coastal development impacts. One criticism of the offset concept is that there is usually a disconnection between the location of the environmental impact and the purported solution. Just as the electrical energy going into the Poseidon plant is coming from the grid generally and not necessarily the AES power plant directly, so too is the pollution there going to be made up for by beautification elsewhere. The axiom “dilution is the solution for pollution” is too often applied, the approach that resulted in the non-point problem in the first place, so it’s hard to change the global thinking toward acting locally. Certainly AES’s carbon pollution is a drop in the bucket globally, right? To be clear, collective “non-point” pollution is accumulated from a collection of numerous point sources, and it is easier to arrest each contributing point source than to try to address the problem regionally. What is currently envisioned for the Poseidon / AES location are two point sources sitting side by side, one an emitter of carbon the other an emitter of brine.
The alternative is for them to work together to solve each other’s emission problems: my proposal is to eliminate brine disposal into the ocean, while at the same time and place, to sequester (lock up) the carbon emissions from the AES plant, using the salt as a substrate for carbon mineralization. Make no mistake, it is an industrial process centered on two chemical reactions, but it mimics what the Earth—what the ocean itself—does to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
A salt is an ionic compound formed from the neutralization of an acid with a base, a spontaneous and energy releasing reaction. The salts in the ocean are either dissolved from salt minerals previously formed in rocks, or formed from the neutralization of carbonic acid—formed from CO2 dissolved in rain—by mineral bases in rocks. The salts are transported into the oceans where they are concentrated and equilibrated. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also dissolves into the ocean forming carbonic acid, but photosynthesis in the ocean consumes the acid, raising the alkalinity, specifically bicarbonate and carbonate alkalinity to super-saturated levels. Excess salts precipitate on the ocean floor. Catalyzed by organisms creating both large and microscopic shells, the carbon precipitates as carbonate onto the ocean floor, locking away carbon for millions of years as part of the multi-million year carbon cycle operating on Earth.
The industrial mimic of Earth’s carbon cycle involves two chemical reactions, the first requiring energy in the form of electric current—the energy penalty of this carbon sequestration technique—the second reaction running spontaneously. Taking the advice given to Stephen Hawking by his editor, that every equation reduces your readership by half, I have placed the net result of the two chemical reactions in a footnote. In words, electric current applied to salt water consumes the salt producing hydrogen gas, chlorine gas, and baking soda, leaving freshwater behind.
The first chemical reaction to get there uses electrolysis on a concentrated saline solution—Poseidon’s brine—to create a base, raising the alkalinity of the solution, analogous to the ocean raising alkalinity with photosynthesis. The reaction also creates hydrogen gas and chlorine compounds, byproducts that have market value ibid. The hydrogen can be used in both stationary fuel cells (an alternative to Tesla’s new lithium-based household battery) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. The chlorine gas can be used to form chlorine products such as hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids, hypochlorite and other chlorine oxides, PVC, and chlorinated solvents.
The second chemical reaction bubbles CO2 gas through the base to form baking soda, a carbon mineral a.k.a sodium bicarbonate. This reaction was recently dramatically and informatively demonstrated on a David Letterman Kid Scientists segment, “pH and color change”. In the experiment, a clear cylinder of a basic solution has a pH in excess of 11 as indicated by the rich purple color of a pH indicator compound. The girl tells David to add dry ice, which is carbon dioxide, to the solution. The vaporizing CO2 reacts with the base to form bicarbonate, a solid form of carbon that then precipitates out of the solution, locking up CO2 vapor as a solid. As the CO2 consumes the base, the conserved alkalinity shifts from base to buffer components, and the pH drops into the neutral range, or even acidic range, pH 7 or less, as indicated by the yellow color of the pH indicator. Dave asks, “Why are we doing this?” The girl replies, “Because it’s colorful.” LOL. Perhaps the best answer to Dave’s question is, “To lock up carbon and save the world.”
Carbon sequestration by mineralization is not theoretical, “pie in the sky,” or “just off the drawing board,” but existing technology. What’s described above using salt is patented, was aggressively funded by the DOE, and is currently capturing 75 metric tons of CO2 off of a cement plant. The technology is scalable to power plant outputs. The technology can also mineralize sulfur and nitric compounds, acting like scrubber technology to reduce acid-precipitation-forming emissions. A variation on the theme was developed and implemented near Monterrey Bay, a technology that makes calcium-phosphatic cement from seawater and a point source of CO2. My understanding of that technique is that it requires additional raw materials to make it work. Calcium and magnesium form much more stable carbonate minerals than sodium, but they are not in sufficient enough quantities in seawater for industrial applications. Klaus Lackner, formerly of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and now director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State has developed mineralization technologies that use the acid from electrolysis to liberate magnesium from silicate rocks, ultimately to form magnesium carbonates for more permanent sequestration while recycling the salt. Our goal to prevent brine disposal is to consume the salt.
No single technology is a panacea for carbon sequestration. The “technical fix” for environmental problems invariably seems to turn any proposal into a modest proposal. Of the technology I described to eliminate salt, the resultant chlorine handling does not come across as “environmental,” but the saline electrolysis reaction described is one of the most common in industry.op cit 37 If anything, it is egregious to a Californian that elsewhere in industry, freshwater and salt are being mixed as raw materials for the reaction. Still, at this scale, it does seem that the need for carbon sequestration is being replaced by a need for chlorine sequestration. Reacting the chlorine and the hydrogen gases instantly forms hydrochloric acid, returning chlorine to chloride. Subsequently reacting the acid with a base, such as with Lackner’s technology on rocks, returns a salt. Using rather than storing the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) re-liberates the CO2. When and where this is done, however, it is usually sorely needed environmentally, such as in the clean-up of acid mine drainage. There is a lot of discussion in the news about the use of algae to “sequester” (de facto “recycle”) carbon into biofuel. The problem is that these technologies have no way to capture the CO2 from the stack. They need to be fed the CO2 or have ponds with large enough surface area (real estate) to draw CO2 from the atmosphere, a carbon remedial application. The mineralization technology described above has stack capture capability and could be used in combination with algae. Adding sodium bicarbonate can raise the pond alkalinity to the levels required, while at the same time, re-reacting the bicarbonate and the acid from the process can deliver dissolved CO2 gas to the algae. But again, reacting the acid and the base returns the salt.
Unfortunately money tends to create a condition of advocacy or leaves the suspicion thereof and rightfully so, but both impede understanding. I do not have a business relationship with either AES or Poseidon. I also do not have the patents for the processes described above, nor a business relationship with those who do.
Full disclosure: I have been in contact with those who do have these patents, and I have made some calculations of the salt budget and the energy penalty that support the concept. But I think I have been forthright in discussing both the pros and cons of the technology. I first started looking into these electrolysis technologies generally when looking into the feasibility of electrolytic hydrogen production, the ideal hydrogen to be used for cleanly storing renewable energy in a hydrogen economy. Large amounts of electrolytic energy are required to split water into hydrogen, making electrolytic hydrogen uneconomical compared to hydrogen from natural gas. Unfortunately the electrolytic technique also requires the use of freshwater to be efficient enough economically, limiting electrolytic hydrogen’s market share to 10% compared to natural gas which provides over 90%. I wrote an editorial in the journal Ground Water that cautioned this could pit energy uses against human uses of freshwater when natural gas supplies wane. Why couldn’t seawater be used to make electrolytic hydrogen instead of freshwater? The electrolytic production of hydrogen from seawater is inefficient because a lot of the energy unavoidably goes into production of the base and chlorine byproducts, a direct result of the electric current being applied to salts in solution. As it turns out, one of these byproducts, the base, can be used to sequester CO2. I became optimistic: the inefficiency of electrolytic hydrogen production from seawater can be viewed as a carbon sequestration energy penalty, i.e. an energy investment well spent.
We need to look at all of our environmental issues as energy issues. Energy drives the Earth’s ecological cycles that eliminate wastes and provide nutrients for life, including water and carbon. As California faces the worst drought in its history, a drought that is predicted to worsen with climate change, we are faced with natural resources and environmental issues at odds with our own uses of energy. It is high time we realize that the natural resources we glean from the environment are energy resources, and can even be directly measured in energy units, thus economically measured as such. Clean, fresh water is energy. No, I’m not saying I can put clean water into my car and expect to go 30 miles, but I am saying there is a heavy investment of energy in the water. The “ecological services” we have long taken for granted have direct energy value. Providing water to southern California requires an accounting that realistically balances the entire energy ledger, including the consequences of energy use.
 Planned freshwater diversions from the delta to the California Aqueduct may impact delta smelt whereas Poseidon’s ocean water intake and outtake may impact marine life.
 Seawater is 86% NaCl by mass, 91% by mol. A liter of freshwater has a mass of one kilogram (kg). A typical grocery store cylinder of salt, measuring 3.25 inches in diameter and 5.25 inches in height, has just over 700 grams of salt. A tenth (1/10) of its height in salt (~70 grams) dissolve into 2-liters results in a concentration of 35 g / kg which is 35,000 parts per million. Corrections can be made for the other salts present and the significant amount of total solutes. A liter of seawater actually has a mass of 1.025 kg.
 From British Thermal Unit (Btu) energy equivalences for energy resources provided by Lebel, P.G., 1982; Energy, Economics, and Technology: Johns Hopkins University Press, 551 p.
 California Department of Water Resources, State Water Project Analysis Office (SWPAO), Management Of The California State Water Project, Bulletin 132-02, January, 2004. Spreadsheet detailing Sidebar XXXV provided upon request.
 Full quote from physicist Frederick Soddy, “[the laws of thermodynamics] control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of political systems, the freedom or bondage of nations, the movements of commerce and industry, the origins of wealth and poverty, and the general physical welfare of the race.”
 Full quote from the California Energy Commission: “California’s water infrastructure uses a tremendous amount of energy to collect, move, and treat water; dispose of wastewater; and power the large pumps that move water throughout the state. California consumers also use energy to heat, cool, and pressurize the water they use in their homes and businesses. Together these water related energy uses annually account for roughly 20 percent of the state’s electricity consumption, one-third of non-power plant natural gas consumption, and about 88 million gallons of diesel fuel consumption.”
California Energy Commission, 2005. Integrated Energy Policy Report, CEC-100-2005-007-CMF. November, 2005.
 “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
- Upton Sinclair
 2NaCl (aq) + 2H2O (aq) + 2CO2 (g) + e– => H2 (g) + Cl2 (g) + 2NaHCO3 (s)
 NaOH + CO2 ==> NaHCO3
 Rifken, J. 2002. The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth, Jeremy P. Tarcher, ISBN 1-58542-193-6
 Hoaglund, J.R., C. Hochgraf, and T. Bohn, 2003. The hydrogen effluent. Ground Water v 41, n 4. p. 404-405.