Myth: A Carbon Neutral Desal Plant

moss landingThe Santa Cruz City Council as well as the Board of the Soquel Creek Water District expressed their desire that the proposed desal plant be carbon neutral. There is a big difference between that desire and the feasibility of accomplishing it.

The obvious way to make a desal plant carbon neutral would be to power it with renewable energy. However, this option was dismissed by the 2005 EIR for the Integrated Water Plan. “… these sources are not feasible at this time for power requirements typical of large-scale industrial-type applications.” This statement is misleading. Of course, renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, could power the plant if it were sufficiently large in size (in the case of solar panels, covering several acres of ground). What’s not “feasible” is the price for such a large installation.

Since renewable energy to power the plant was ruled out, the consultants began to look for cheap ways to “offset” the carbon emissions of the plant. The first attempt to make the desal plant appear carbon neutral came from the consultant, CH2MHill, who recommended that the City purchase Renewable Energy Credits (REC’s). For a small fraction of the cost to produce renewable energy, you can purchase the ownership rights to that energy. You can read our critique of REC’s in Turn On the Greenwash Wipers.

The City dropped its consulting contract with CH2MHill and hired Kennedy/Jenks to conduct an Energy Minimization and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study. Kennedy/Jenks intended to evaluate offset projects using the criteria that the State of California uses. The projects must be Additional (to projects that would have occurred anyway); Quantifiable; Enforceable; Real; Permanent; and Verifiable. In their progress report, K/J offered 11 projects that supposedly met the criteria:

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 10.28.39 AMThe problem is these offsets don’t meet the State’s criteria:

  • The efficiency savings at the Water Department and the Waste Water Treatment Plant are part of the City’s Climate Action Plan, and therefore not additional. Washing machine rebates are not additional either.
  • Solar rebates are fine, but since the subsidy they offer is just a fraction of the cost of the solar installation, the output of that installation cannot be fully credited as an offset.
  • Recovered CO2 for treating desalinated water with calcium carbonate is the most suspect of these strategies, since it is not clear what the carbon footprint would be for supplying CO2.
  • “Certified GHG Offsets” is a vague category that says nothing about what criteria may be used to certify the offsets.

Out of the eleven projects leaves a few that are truly worthy of the name “offsets” — micro-hydropower at the Graham Hill Treatment Plant, and local renewable energy projects. We’re back full circle to considering renewable energy to power the plant. And to generate enough renewable energy to do so, we’d need to spend quite a lot of money—perhaps $40-$50 million.

Even if we decided to invest tens of millions in renewable energy, wouldn’t that be better spent offsetting existing power consumption of the Water Department? The Climate Action Plan calls for greenhouse gas reductions of 80% by 2030. The Plan offers no pathway by which the Water Department will reach that goal other than by reducing demand.




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