Top desalination plant virtually untapped

2013-07-07 14:00

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Mossel Bay Municipality to fork out R4m a year on maintenance

The country’s largest desalination plant has virtually come to a halt and is costing the Mossel Bay Municipality R4 million a year to maintain.

This is while the government proposed large-scale desalination in its latest national water resource strategy, which was announced last week.

Desalination technology is also being considered to make acid mine water usable again.

In 2011, in response to the severe drought in the Southern Cape since 2008, Mossel Bay completed its plant, which can desalinate 15 million litres of sea water a day at a cost of R200 million. By 2010 good rains started falling again and Harry Hill, spokesperson for the Mossel Bay Municipality, said the plant was hardly being used.

Hill says the municipality does not see this as a waste, but as an insurance against future water shortages.

Plettenberg Bay and Sedgefield also have desalination plants, with a capacity of 2 million litres and 1.5 million litres a day, respectively.

Hill admits this is an expensive way to provide water because it uses a lot of electricity. “We haven’t used it very much yet, but we maintain the plant because it improves Mossel Bay’s water security for periodic droughts. It’s an insurance for the longer term and if the economy picks up again, it will enable us to meet the increased demand for water, so we do not see it as a waste.”

They estimate it costs R8 per kilolitre to desalinate sea water at current power prices.

Professor Neil Armitage, head of the University of Cape Town’s resource centre for urban water management, warns municipalities that are planning to build water desalination plants to ensure that they will be fully utilised, otherwise it won’t be lucrative.

Besides, there are many options to conserve water that cities have not utilised fully yet, such as storm water runoff and harvesting of rain water.

The Mossel Bay plant was financed with R90 million from the state, R80 million from PetroSA and a municipal loan for the rest.

The cost of desalination had shrunk to a quarter of what it was 20 years ago, Armitage said.

This is due to improved technology and economies of scale as more and more plants are being built and there is competition.

Umgeni Water Board is working on a feasibility study for a plant for Durban that can desalinate 150 million litres of sea water a day.

Shami Harichunder, stakeholder manager of Umgeni Water, estimates such a facility could cost as much as R2.9 billion and would require 25 megawatts of available power.

Armitage said there was a limit to how low the cost of desalination could fall, depending on the energy costs and the cost of the infrastructure to support the plant.

It costs about R10 per kilolitre to desalinate water, compared with about R2 per kilolitre to supply water through conventional channels. Once a plant has been built, it is an asset that costs money to maintain and this pushes up the cost of water.

But according to its water resource strategy, the government is optimistic that South Africa can carry out desalination in a financially viable way.

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