MSSC Salinity Summit 2008

11th January 2008

Last February I wrote a piece called California Solar’s Revolutionary Energy Business Model for Desalination Pumps

Yuck. Lousy title.

The point of the piece was that sometime in the future California public utilities might be able to offload a part of their energy costs for pipeline pumping–by using net metering.

Along the way I mentioned that photo voltaic companies like NanoSolar would be collapsing the cost of solar power. This past December NanoSolar made good on their promise. Nanosolar (as recorded in Popular Science Magazine) is now producing solar cells for about $1 a watt. That’s their sales price. Their manufacturing cost is $.30 @ watt. It costs another $1@watt to plug in all the pieces for the solar panel. To understand these numbers its helpful to understand that the cheapest way to produce electrical power currently is by coal and that comes to $2.1 a watt–plus transportation and clean up. Once full production starts this year, Nanosolar’s plant will create 430 megawatts’ worth of solar cells a year—more than the combined total of every other solar plant in the U.S.–and about the output of a medium sized coal plant. All production is booked for the next 18 months. Its easy to see that photovoltaics at Nanosolar price points will make it easy to get financing to scale up to 50-100 plants just like the one now in production. Anyhow this is a good read at the NY Times.

Judging by the research — photovoltaic costs will fall much further in the next couple years.

So how can the desalination community push down the cost of desalination — at the kinds of lightning strike speeds that solar power enjoys currently?

Next week, I’m going to the annual MSSC Salinity Summit in Las Vegas. The last time I was in Vegas — was last August — for annual meeting of the American Membrane Technology Association.

After that meeting last August I proposed spending 3 billion over 7-10 years– to collapse the cost of water desalination and transport so that desert water costs nearly the same as east coast water. Basically, the research today strongly suggests that it will be economically possible to make water desalination and transport so cheap that in the not distant future –it will be economically possible to turn all deserts green.

So why not go for it?

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a study (entitled A Strategy for Federal Science and Technology to Support Water Availability and Quality in the United States September, 2007) on the national challenges to ensure adequate fresh water supplies. The study then outlines a federal strategic plan for addressing these challenges and provides a guide for how federal agencies will be a part of this plan.

The study posted at the NTSB website specifically notes:

The United States will expand technologies for enhancing reliable water supplies and will widen the range of options for delivering water to growing populations. These technologies include desalination, water treatment and reuse, and more efficient methods of water use in the agriculture, energy, buildings, and industry sectors. Federal agencies will work with others to develop these technologies. pg 19

The Subcommittee on Water Availability and Quality has identified the following critical actions to provide the tools necessary to enhance reliable water supply:
• Identify and pursue appropriate Federal research opportunities for improving and expanding technologies for enhanced use of marginal or impaired water supplies. Such technologies might be applied to desalination, water treatment and reuse, or conservation in the United States and other countries. pg 19

The study names the Dept of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation Science and Technology Program as one that funds both internal and external desalination research.

I would think that this agency might perform the role of orchestrating research funding by multiple public and private entities toward multiple desalination research projects. Certainly someone needs to do this. There are a lot of public and private groups currently funding desalination research.

However, I would think that if the water desalination community wants to go into high gear — then they need to adapt the practices of fast moving industries. What that means is that the front line scientists choose the research projects and the administrators work out the funding. This is done by way of crowd prediction markets. ie how does a research administrator best deploy his dollars between projects competing for research dollars? Choosing rightly between known knowns is difficult. In fast paced industries companies use something called prediction markets. I discuss this strategy here.

Besides all the various agencies currently funding research– some mention needs to be made of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative spends two billion dollars annually. Their 2007 Strategic Plan named Safe Affordable Water (page 27) as a strategic goal. This will make a considerable amount of money available for Membrane R&D and Manufacturing. Consider last years big LLNL carbon nanotube membrane breakthrough. That work was not funded through the NNI. It was funded from LLNL’s LDRD program, DARPA, & NSF. With NNI funding –much more desalination membrane work like the LLNL initiative will be eligible for funding.

As well I would reiterate:

Prize money like the X-Prize is a frugal way to get the most bang for the research buck. I blogged about this in a piece called harvesting research unknown unknowns.

An example of this kind of prize driven research is provided by the state of New Mexico’s environmental design contest that this time round focuses on water and renewable energy. The Design Contest is sponsored by private and public entities such as Intel, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Food and Drug Administration and the American Water Works Association. One of its goals is to:

Develop an inland desalination operation and disposal system (for water) in rural, isolated communities to demonstrate a low-cost, simple and reliable system.

A more sophisticated version of the same thing could be done for membranes, pipelines etc.

Another suggestion would be to attack known unknowns by employing a much less publicized method of crowd sourcing scientific research which I discuss in detail here.

Often a research organization will have the right questions but limited time, budget or brain power with which to solve the problem. Wouldn’t it be nice to say “Ok we have this problem and we will pay this much for a solution.” Websites have grown up to address this problem.

Next Wednesday USBR is sponsoring a trip out Hoover Dam. Its a helpful thing to consider men whose vision made the 20th century possible in the southwest and whose vision today continues to buy time for many desert communities.

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