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Using Biomass Energy Production to Decrease Regional Power Demand and Resolve Water Supply Shortages

Alan Rozich's picture
Director, BioConversion Solutions

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

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  • Jan 25, 2021

This item is part of the State of the Industry 2021 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Courtesy, https:// (RO System)  & Coal Energy Plant (Alamy)

Many regions like Southern California are widely known for being in a Water-Energy Nexus. This particular region is a very resource-challenged locale in the US that is a magnet for attracting a variety of approaches and schemes that profess to be high tech, silver bullet solutions for addressing nexus issues. This comment particularly applies to water and energy resources in this geography. One of the bullets-du-jour, the Poseidon Project is (some would argue, "was") the answer to this locale's water supply shortages. The technical concept is to extract ocean water and use reverse osmosis (RO) technology (RO system is shown in header) to make drinking water. This approach is technically sound from an engineering perspective and should be an executable project.

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However, the Poseidon Project and any potential large-scale desalination projects are fatally flawed from a sustainability perspective as this article explains.

Leveraging existing biomass conversion systems in the locale to increase water resource supplies presents at least one viable alternative that meets sustainability metrics and is far more economical. It should be noted that the total amount of recycled water production in California is currently about 1,500,000 acre-foot and increasing yearly. By comparison, the Poseidon Plant is expected to generate about 56,000 acre-foot (50 million gallons/day) and comes with a $1 billion price tag. It is straightforward for Southern California to replace that water that is otherwise generated by Poseidon with other sources of recycled water. Recycled water can be generated using biomass systems using existing infrastructure. This water can be incorporated into the water-reuse supply to replace the very expensive 56,000 acre-foot of higher-grade water that would otherwise be generated by Poseidon.

Water and Energy are Frequently Interlinked Resources

Interlinked resources are ones that are interrelated in one way or another and can be co-dependent. The concept was notably articulated by McKinsey & Company. These linkages can be either negative or positive. For example, in California, water is needed for farming, domestic consumption, and energy production. It takes energy to make water while water is also needed to make energy. It takes one to make the other and vice-versa.

Interestingly, water and energy production are severely interlinked in California. You need one to make the other and vice-versa.

These interlinkages can also be negative or positive. The challenge is to know which is which for a particular situation or circumstance and have the ability to leverage, and not be impeded by, resource interlinkages. Leveraging interlinkages is realized by cleverly integrating existing technologies.

The deft integration of proven technology platforms is generally a more reliable path for achieving technological goals instead of obsessively trying to "reinvent the wheel" to meet novel, target functionalities. This axiom was brilliantly illustrated in Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "Superiority." In this yarn, two adversaries use different approaches for deploying weapons systems during an interplanetary war. One antagonist is captivated with the allure of new, cutting edge technologies for armaments. The other combatant is content with a more parsimonious approach using "inferior" or passé science as a means to prosecute the war. Ultimately, unforeseen developmental challenges hinder the "new technology" provocateur while the planet employing technically-proven methods prevails. The winner was able to significantly amass conventional armaments which enabled them to soundly overwhelm their opponent.

The moral of Clarke's story, as it applies to the California Water-Energy Nexus, is that it might behoove one to consider leveraging existing and proven infrastructure than "putting all your eggs in one basket."

Water and Energy Resources Can Be Made Simultaneously Using Biomass

An alternative approach is available to desalination that utilizes biomass resources and existing infrastructure to make energy and water resources with a negative carbon footprint. Technology platforms can be formulated that cleverly integrate existing technologies to achieve compelling results. For example, a 20 MGD (million gallons per day, serving a population of approximately 200,000) wastewater treatment plant could be retrofitted to generate:

  • Over 10 million gallons per day (11,200 acre-feet) of recycled water (conservatively) per plant
  • 173 MMBTU of energy per day (50,700 kwh/day) NET ENERGY POSITIVE
  • Over $4 million per year in green ammonia and phosphoric acid fertilizers

These numbers can be used to determine how one can engineer a more cost-effective and sustainably-acceptable alternative to replace the water generated by Poseidon.

The California Water - Energy Nexus: The Real Life Poseidon Adventure

Hollywood interestingly and, perhaps, prophetically, released a fictional disaster film entitled, "The Poseidon Adventure". The real life version, albeit taking place almost exclusively on dry land, is also rife with drama, but in the real life version, most of the acrimony and confusion is arguably generated by special interest groups. There are, nevertheless, inescapable realities that are being blithely ignored or, at best, wantonly disregarded. These realities include:

  • A massive, energy-consuming assemblage is being deployed to generate drinking water in a locale with a dire resource situation. This initiative will exacerbate an already dire resource situation. This conundrum is caused by resource interlinkages that fester because of the California Water-Energy Nexus. The procedures and decision do not seem consistent with the precepts for sound sustainability project development and engineering.
  • The Poseidon price tag is huge at $1 billion and the value proposition is questionable at best. Consider that energy requirements for desalination are about 13 kwh/1,000 gallons. This means that Poseidon's projected annual energy consumption projects to be a staggering (based on 18,250,000,000 gallons per year of water produced) 238,000,000 kwh/year.

Poseidon's annual projected energy budget and costs, based on EIA industrial electrical costs for California for October 2020 of $16.02/kwh, are estimated to be $38,130,000 per year.

  • In contrast, an alternative water resource production approach can be configured by retrofitting a few municipal wastewater plants together to generate recycled water that can be incorporated into the water resource plan. This path would enable the region to forego operation of the Poseidon Installation can create the 50 MGD needed to supplant the water resources that otherwise would need to be generated with desalination. It is estimated that the alternative approach would have a CAPEX of $150 million (~$30 million per plant). Each plant can produces about 18,200,000 kwh/year of energy for a total (5 plants) of 91,100,000 kwh as RNG.

The sum of the the energy cost avoidance for the Poseidon Project and the energy production the alternative approach's energy production realizes a potential net energy savings of 329,100,000 kwh/year for the region. Using the EIA rate for industrial electricity in California of $0.1602/kwh, the net energy savings aggregate has an annual monetary equivalent of $52,700,000 per year.

  • Notably, modifying existing infrastructure convert biomass to energy and high-grade fertilizer also generates recycled water resources.

These water resources which can be produced without egregiously impacting existing regional energy and power assets can be pooled with other water resources and processed using conventional water treatment systems to supplant water production of a resource-intensive desalination processes.


The governing dynamics for power and water resources in many regions are likely emblematic of a Water-Energy Nexus. Caution must be exercised when developing, engineering, and implementing solutions because ignoring nexus realities and myopically focusing on addressing one resource deficiency will inevitably exacerbate the aggregate resource situation to the detriment of regional economic and societal functionality. The need for structured FEED (Front-end engineering development) procedures, particularly in the embryonic stages of projects that have regional impacts and consequences, is crucial. FEED efforts are proven and time-tested project development and engineering protocols that are applicable to projects of types and sizes. These procedures impart the discipline that enable developers and other project stakeholders to evoke transparency and integrity and to be able to modify project trajectory as new information is obtained, assimilated, and processed.


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Alan Rozich's picture
Thank Alan for the Post!
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