By John Earl
OC Voice Editor
An environmental scientist for the California Coastal Commission says that the cost of water to be produced by a desalination plant approved by the city of Huntington Beach has been greatly underestimated by the developer and that proposed mitigation measures for its impact on ocean marine life are inadequate.
The project was approved by the H.B. City Council (including current councilmembers Don Hansen, Keith Bohr, Cathy Green and Gil Coerper) in Feb. 2006.
The remarks were part of a letter to Poseidon Resources Inc., the multi-national corporate water corporation that will oversee construction of the plant that would suck in 100 million gallons of ocean water every day and convert it into 50 million gallons of drinking water. Poseidon plans to co-locate with the AES power generating plant on Newland Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway to take cost-saving advantage of the plant’s “once-through cooling” system to gather the ocean water it needs for conversion.
Once-through cooling systems are also used by 20 other antiquated power plants along the California coast and suck in 17 billion gallons of seawater each year, killing virtually all the marine organisms passing through their membranes, a significant contributor to the 60 percent decline in marine species, according to a 2005 report by the California Energy Commission.
A recent court ruling, as well as legislative trends and a resolution by the California State Lands Commission, are bringing once-through cooling to a close, sooner or later. “It’s the end of once-through cooling systems in the U.S.”, Surfrider Foundation desalination expert Joe Geever told the Voice in September, adding, “AES is fighting the changes tooth and nail.”
Incomplete Application & Promises
The 7-page-letter, dated June 27, 2007, was a “Notice of Incomplete Application” for a Coastal Development permit and cited numerous instances where Poseidon had given incomplete information or made dubious claims about permits, environmental effects, environmentally friendly alternatives and costs related to the project in response to a similar request for information a year earlier. Nearly 2-years later, the information is still not forthcoming, according to the CCC’s Environmental Scientist, Tom Luster, who wrote the letter.
Poseidon’s desalination plant would take publicly owned ocean water, convert it to tap water, and sell it back to the public for a profit. Organized opponents to the project criticized the company for ignoring key environmental impact issues and questioned whether the plant would ever be built, considering rising costs of fossil fuel and electricity needed to operate it, and a lack of buyers for the expensive water-as high as $2,000 per acre-foot-it would produce.
Poseidon told the city of Huntington Beach that the project would cost (Poseidon) about $150 million in capital to build and promised it would produce water for sale at around $800 per acre-foot, but that amount was based on government subsidies that might not materialize.
Since then, Poseidon has claimed a cost of $355 million and water at $950 per acre-foot. But Luster’s letter challenges those estimates, stating they are much lower than estimated costs at other proposed and co-located facilities, and that “Poseidon’s response does not provide an adequate basis for these substantially lower costs.”
Luster told the Voice that $1,400 – $1,500 per acre foot is “what we are expecting for that project,” about 4 or 5 times the cost of local well water used in Huntington Beach and 3 times the cost of recycled drinking water that will be produced by the Orange County Sanitation District.
The letter attributes Poseidon’s lower cost estimate in part to its claim that it will pay $0.07 per kilowatt-hour for electricity needed to run the facility. “This appears to be a much lower rate than is available for the proposed project,” it says. The cost would actually increase about $50 per acre-foot for each $0.01 per kilowatt-hour, “so the published rates would increase your proposed water costs by at least several hundred dollars per acre-foot,” the letter states.
Luster asked Poseidon to supply a copy of its contract with AES, which it had refused to do in the when asked by the city of Huntington Beach, along with a sample electrical bill to help clarify how it arrived at its unlikely cost estimate.
The letter also challenges Poseidon’s assertion that mitigation for environmental damage already taken by the AES power plant is sufficient, since the desalination plant would be using the same water intake system and in theory would not create addition environmental stress.
The AES mitigation was limited, however, to a smaller amount of water flow coming from two of the plant’s four generating units, while the desalination plant would add significantly more water flow than previously studied, the letter says. Besides, it states, the Coastal Commission did not approve the AES mitigation, which does not generally meet its standards.
Other points made in the letter:
Poseidon’s own research shows that a subsurface ocean water intake system, favored by environmentalists, would be economically feasible, while creating “fewer adverse environmental impacts” than the company’s proposal.
Poseidon has not provided sufficient information describing or providing “feasible mitigation measures” for the desalination plant’s future effects on coastal resources from the estimated 200 – 250 million pounds of carbon dioxide it will emit into the air.
Nor has Poseidon provided permits to create a 12-mile-long pipeline needed to transport the desalinated water it produces through Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa.
In fact, the Voice has learned, Poseidon is currently negotiating franchise agreements with Mesa Consolidated Water and the city of Huntington Beach. Former Costa Mesa mayor Peter Buffa is Poseidon’s negotiator and is briefing city council members on a proposed plan to replace a water line in return for permission to use the new one for transporting its water.
H.B City Administrator Paul Emery told the Voice that the city is negotiating with Poseidon but that any proposal for the City Council’s consideration was “not eminent.”
Multiple attempts by the Voice to get a response from Poseidon were no more successful than the Coastal Commission’s efforts.
In an e-mail address to other Poseidon CEOs and obtained by the Voice, Senior Vice President Nikolay Voutchkov, wrote, in response to written questions from the Voice: “Let me know if you need any support in responding on these questions. We have already addressed them in our last response to the CCC. This guy has an outdated info.”
But in an e-mail that followed, Chief Executive Officer, Andrew Kingman, replied: “no reply necessary, John Earl is not a friend and we won’t get anywhere with him.”