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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

 

Sarah Mills

The Role of Desalination In The East Of England In 2025 And Beyond: A look at the water/energy connection

Sarah Mills

The Role of Desalination In The East Of England In 2025 And Beyond: A look at the water/energy connection

Despite the perception of the UK as being extremely rainy, the high population density of the southeast corner of England actually renders it one of the driest places in Europe.  This situation of water stress is expected to worsen in coming years as targeted growth creates swelling population centers and climate change introduces greater precipitation variability.  While the UK government has advocated demand-side reductions as the preferred water management approach, even the most aggressive conservation measures will barely keep pace with expected growth.  With all traditional supplies (surface and ground waters) fully accounted for, water companies throughout the region have begun looking at novel supply-side schemes to meet future needs.  Among these, desalination is currently one of the most debated, being hailed by its proponents as the way forward for the island nation, while opponents point to the process’s immense energy requirements as its primary transgression.

This research aims to determine whether desalination, when powered by a renewable energy source, might present a sustainable long-term solution to meeting water demand in East and Southeast England.  It further seeks to identify specific communities within the study area that might be best suited for desalination, pointing out which desalination processes and renewable energy schemes would provide the most sustainable solutions.

While informal discussions with UK water industry personnel helped determine the proper scope of the project and insight into UK-specific desalination discussions, a thorough literature review sets the framework for a overview of technologies:  desalination, renewable energy, and their combined use.  The energy statistics from current best practice are then used in combination with population and water usage projections to determine the renewable energy requirements to provide desalinated water to characteristic communities.  Using wind power to supply Ipswich, for example, would require ten 80-meter diameter turbines.  Norwich would require over 3 million acres of biomass-type crops to power a desalination plant to meet their projected needs. 

Analyzing each scenario reveals that the most realistic coupling of renewable energy with desalination technology in eastern and southeastern England would involve using wind energy.  There might also be a potential to utilize tidal or wave energies should those technologies experience significant advancement in coming years.  While communities on the coast would be the best targets for desalination schemes since overland pumping would be greatly minimized, severe water shortages in inland communities may warrant desalination for these communities as well.  Such inland schemes, however, will require careful consideration as to where to locate the desalination plant and wind turbines.

While identifying the best possible schemes is rather straightforward, deciding whether any of these schemes represents a sustainable solution is far more complicated.  A final analysis attempts to consider whether desalination would socially, environmentally, and economically be an appropriate future route for the UK in particular, and the world in general.