February 23, 2020

Desalination, Israeli-style

The subsidiary of an Israeli company has been selected to design the largest seawater-desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. Located in northern San Diego County, the plant will be designed and operated by IDE Americas, part of IDE Technologies, headquartered in Kadima.

Announced in December, the plant — known as the Carlsbad Desalination Project — will be able to produce up to 54 million gallons of water every day and will help San Diego County’s goal of attaining 7 percent of its water supply from desalination efforts by 2020. Water authorities at the state and local levels have indicated that a greater focus on desalination efforts is critical to maintaining a sustainable water supply.

The plant will be owned by Poseidon Resources and operated in cooperation with San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), according to a water authority spokesperson. Poseidon will spend $954 million to build the project.

Construction on the plant, which will be built near the Encina Power Station in Carlsbad, Calif., is already under way. IDE Americas will operate and maintain the plant for 30 years after construction is completed in 2016. 

Since its inception in the early 1960s, IDE Technologies has been involved in more than 400 desalination projects in more than 40 countries. IDE’s newest Israeli project is a desalination plant slated to begin operating this year in Sorek, about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. The Sorek plant will sell desalinated water at a rate of about 50 cents for 250 gallons.

SDCWA Director of Water Resources Ken Weinberg said that he thinks IDE’s involvement with the Carlsbad project was a major selling point in SDCWA’s decision to get on board.

“We’re very excited to have IDE Americas design and operate the new plant,” Weinberg said.  “[IDE Americas] is integral to the plant’s design and operation, and SDCWA and IDE will have a very close relationship over the coming years.”

Mark Lambert, CEO of IDE Americas, was unavailable for comment, but he said in a statement last month that the Carlsbad project will help shape the diversity of American water sources. 

“Our view is that the Carlsbad project that we’re about to embark upon will accelerate the visibility of desalination in North America,” he said. “The movement in the U.S. toward desalination has been a long time coming, and we’re ready to lead the charge.”

Weinberg also said that having a plant built and operated in San Diego would stimulate the local economy. Project officials estimate that construction will create 2,300 jobs and that operations at the plant will support 575 jobs.

“It’s going to have a big impact on the local community,” he said. “The new desalination plant, alone, will double the amount of locally produced water supplies in San Diego …”

Desalination is the process of purifying saltwater to make it suitable for human consumption. Today, desalination usually occurs through a process known as reverse osmosis, or membrane desalination. 

Practical membrane desalination was invented by Jewish chemical engineer Sidney Loeb, who, as a student at UCLA more than 50 years ago, helped develop semi-permeable membranes that allow water to pass through but not large molecules or ions. Loeb took his discovery to Israel and taught developed membrane desalination for two decades at what later became the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

According to Christopher Gasson, publisher at the water-industry analyst firm Global Water Intelligence, Loeb’s contribution to Israeli desalination, as well as millions of dollars in research grants from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to IDE Technologies, helped IDE and Israel become world leaders in desalination efforts.

“IDE’s thermal plants remain dramatically cheaper than anything that the rest of the world has to offer, although the market is limited because of access issues with the Arab world,” Gasson said. “IDE also continues to innovate in membrane desalination — besides continuing to drive the cost of water down, it has also made desalination greener through its chemical-free desalination system.”

One challenge to the Carlsbad project came from the Surfrider Foundation, which filed a lawsuit arguing that the project violated a California water code law that requires seawater-based operations to ensure optimal circumstances for minimizing damage to marine life. The 4th District Court of Appeal, however, ruled in favor of the project in November.

Gasson said that the new San Diego desalination plant shows a change in the status quo for California, which he says has been resistant to desalination efforts in the past. 

“Despite being the birthplace of membrane desalination, California seems to be terrified of the technology,” he said. “The fact that they are now having to turn to an Israeli company to supply something as basic as water suggests that America does need to look at the way it supports innovation.”