Quenching Beijing’s thirst

Capital city plans world’s biggest desalination plant?

Quenching Beijing’s thirst

Back to the salt mines

In its long history, China has been defined by a simple commodity: water. Its civilisation grew out of its two major waterways: the Yellow River and the Yangtze.

Irrigation projects – began over 2,200 year ago – helped to unite the country. And 1,400 years ago, the emperors of the Sui Dynasty completed the Grand Canal – a piece of infrastructure that would help ensure China was the richest economy on the planet for the next millenium.

So it should come as no surprise that when China thinks of water it thinks big.

The latest example, according to the 21CN Business Herald, is a plan to build the world’s largest desalination plant near Beijing – a city which faces a chronic water deficit.

The proposed plant will be built in Caofeidian (and a smaller one in Tianjin) and pipe the water to Beijing.

When you think of desalination, the image is probably of the Middle East, which maintains 75% of the world’s capacity.

But the Caofeidian project – which has a proposed annual production output of 400 million cubic metres of fresh water – plans to be a third larger than the Jebel Ali facility in the United Arab Emirates, currently the world’s biggest.

Caofeidian’s cheerleader, Xue Boxun, concedes that desalination has its challenges, not least the final price of the water produced. But Xue also has high hopes that Caofeidian can use technical advantages to reduce costs, reports the Herald.The major drawback to desalination is its energy consumption, especially in removing the salt from sea water.

But in Caofeidian’s case two local thermal power plants and a steel plant will be integrated into the production process – with cost-saving benefits. The steel plant’s 9 million tonnes of waste gas will also be used in the nearby power plants. The thermal power stations will use seawater as coolant, and then transmit the heated output for desalination itself too.

The approach is a sensible one, says Global Water Intelligence, a specialist publication. The “circle of enterprises” involved at Caofeidian should offer economic and environmental benefits which are ultimately reflected in the water price.

In fact, Xue – who is the deputy director of the Caofeidian New Area Management Committee – forecasts that the total cost of the desalinated water will be about Rmb4.6 per tonne ($0.67) and this incorporates the costs of transferring it 220km by pipe to Beijing. That is marginally less than the Rmb5 per tonne that he says Beijing residents currently pay.

There is definitely a market for Caofeidian’s desalinated water, especially since the completion of Beijing’s other big water initiative – the South-North Water Transfer Project – has been delayed until 2014.

But there are hitches too. One is the $2.5 billion cost and how to share it with the Beijing municipal authorities. But with China currently looking to stimulate its economy through massive infrastructure spending, that is a far from insurmountable problem.

The bigger challenge, concedes Xu, is the salt. He says that the plant’s planned throughput of 400 million cubic metres of seawater will produce 7 million cubic metres of brine. If you pump that back into the sea, it will raise the ocean’s salinity and endanger the coastal ecosystem. An idea to bury it in landfill was rejected due to similarly undesirable environmental consequences. Of course, the brine could be dried in fields and used to produce table salt. And helpfully, salt fields do exist in nearby Nanpu. But Nanpu’s current capacity is sufficient for just 1.6 million cubic metres of sodium chloride per year, less than a quarter of what is required.

That means the city of Caofeidian is going to need to build a lot more salt fields. Xue says this is underway.

Beijing’s thirsty citizens will hope this salty problem can be resolved quickly.

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