Engineers and officials agree it is a modern wonder, a “marvellous plant” in the words of one construction manager, “beautiful” says an equipment manufacturer.
The award-winning €300m ($438m) desalination plant at Torrevieja on Spain’s arid south-east coast is Europe’s largest facility for converting seawater into fresh, and the second biggest in the world.
Finished last year, the plant is idle, however, and likely to be so for at least another 18 months. Neither the pipes to the sea nor the power transmission lines have been approved or built. Even if it does begin to process seawater, the product may be so expensive nobody wants to buy it.
“It is absurd to make this kind of multimillion-euro investment,” says Javier Montoro, councillor for infrastructure in Torrevieja municipality. “We doubt that this water will be priced at a level at which it can be sold.”
The production of fresh water from the sea has risen ninefold over the past 30 years, in spite of concerns about its environmental impact.
According to 2010 data from the International Desalination Association, there are now more than 15,000 such plants worldwide. More than 300m people rely on desalination technology for water. The biggest producers are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Spain.
There are two common ways of obtaining fresh water from the oceans. The thermal process, often used in the oil-rich Gulf, evaporates seawater and then condenses the steam. Membrane desalination – common in other countries such as Spain and the US – pressurises the seawater on one side of a membrane to separate the fresh water from the salt.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about the environmental impact, ranging from carbon dioxide emissions through high energy consumption to the impact of the salty waste water pumped back into the sea. Chemicals are also used to treat the seawater and end up in the effluent waste.
In Spain, the net effect is generally local rather than regional, since the alternative to desalination – taking more water out of rivers and therefore reducing fresh water flowing into the sea – would have the same overall effect on sea salinity.
Financed with Spanish taxpayers’ money and €55m of European Union regional development funds, the Torrevieja plant has been challenged on environmental and financial grounds repeatedly.
With a heated dispute brewing in Brussels over rising EU spending at a time of austerity, plus tensions between Europe’s fiscally self-righteous north and poorer neighbours in the south, the fate of the plant will be watched across the continent.
The idle plant also risks becoming another example – like the €1bn empty airport at Ciudad Real in central Spain – of the dangers of a highly devolved political system where power is shared between the state, 17 regions and more than 8,000 municipalities.
The plant has fallen victim to intense political rivalry between the Spanish Socialist party, which runs the national government in Madrid, and the rightwing Popular party, which controls the Valencia autonomous region and Torrevieja’s town council.
Marta More Abat, the director-general for water at the Spanish environment ministry, says it has been asking the Valencia government for an environmental permit for more than two years. “The regional government has still not granted it. This paralyses the project completely,” she says.
The history of large-scale desalination in Spain goes back to the 1970s when the Canary Islands and other remote, dry places needed water for their inhabitants and for the growing tourism industry. But after José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialist party won the elections in 2004, it cancelled a plan backed by its PP predecessor to channel water from the Ebro river in the north to help the dry south-east. Instead, the Socialists chose to invest €2bn in a string of big desalination plants along the coast.
“Desalination plants are becoming much more affordable,” says Borja Blanco of Energy Recovery Inc, which supplied some of the high-tech equipment to the Torrevieja plant. “In the 1980s it was a luxury of places that had no other choice.”
“They [the Valencia regional government] don’t want it to start so they can say that desalination is a failure,” says José Luis Sánchez, professor of marine sciences at the University of Alicante. He laments the lack of serious studies on the relative merits of different water supply systems in the region, but says the costs and environmental risks of reverse osmosis have been exaggerated by the Popular party. “There’s a problem of political demagoguery,” he says.
PP loyalists, however, remain committed to the suspended Ebro project as a more sensible alternative and resent bitterly the way the Torrevieja plant was imposed on the town by central government decree.
Even Madrid’s own estimates suggest the desalinated water would cost between twice and four times as much as the project’s agreed selling price of 30 cents per cubic metre. It is not clear which government agency would pay the difference.
“Massive scale desalination doesn’t work,” says José María Benlliure, the director-general of water in the Valencia regional government, arguing that a technology useful as an emergency backstop for cities such as Barcelona or Benidorm is too expensive for basic water supply.
Three years ago, Barcelona was so stricken by drought that it imported water by the shipload from Tarragona and Marseilles in France. Today it has a new desalination plant capable of producing a fifth of the area’s water supply.
But with the price of oil high because of the political turmoil in the Middle East, and abundant rain having fallen across much of Spain over the past two years, the omens are not good in the short term for high-cost desalination plants on the Iberian peninsula.
Investigation in conjunction with Victor Mallet of the Financial Times.