Bill Nye: Solar-Powered Desalination 'Could Be Key to the Future'
Desalinating seawater has been hailed as the solution to addressing freshwater scarcity, but the technology has yet to be scaled. Big Think, which bills itself as a "knowledge forum," hosts a series, Tuesdays With Bill Nye, where viewers ask Nye questions about a range of popular topics. This Tuesday, Nye answered a question from a young girl in Minnesota who wanted to know if we can desalinate water for human consumption on a massive scale.
"Desalination of water could be the key to the future for so many of us humans," Nye said, explaining how desalination plants utilize reverse osmosis to remove salt from seawater. Researchers are in the process of developing new technologies right now, he continued.
Many places around the world already use the technology, Nye noted. "This is done all the time. It's done in Australia at several industrial-scale, citywide installations ... Carlsbad, California has one. And cruise chips and I guess the U.S. Navy exploit this technology all the time," Nye said.
So, he's very optimistic that we "are living at a time where this breakthrough may be made on an industrial scale," and he believes it could even be powered by renewables.
"We could have all the clean water we wanted for everybody all over the world and we would power the pumps with solar power, regular old photovoltaic solar cells, and when the sun is not shining you don't pump the water," Nye explained.
"So you pump the water when the sun is shining and and you fill up reservoirs all over the world. And so humankind could—if this stuff works out—it could have access to clean water for the billions of us that need it."
Critics argue the technology is too expensive and too energy-intensive to be adopted on a massive scale. Take, for example, the Carlsbad, California desalination plant that Nye mentioned. The plant, which came online at the end of last year, is the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
But the water from the plant "costs 80 percent more than San Diego pays for water outside the county, and even though the plant is huge, it can only meet 10 percent of San Diego's needs," Julian Huguet from Discovery News explained. "And it will use a lot energy ... making it more a small puzzle piece than the ultimate solution to California's drought."
Still, California and other water-stressed regions of the world, particularly the Gulf region, are rushing to develop energy-efficient desalination plants. About a dozen desalination plants are being proposed in California.
Worldwide, there are already an estimated 15,000–20,000 desalination plants producing more than 20,000 cubic meters of water per day. Places as varied as Aruba, Chile and Algeria all use desalination.
Israel already supplies 40 percent of its drinking water from desalination. That number is projected to climb to 70 percent by 2050.
Forward-thinking companies are working on solar-powered desalination plants. French engineering company Mascara is developing a desalination plant that is powered by off-grid, rooftop solar in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The plant is the fifth desalination demonstration project from Masdar, which is currently running a pilot program to test renewably powered desalination plants in the United Arab Emirates. The group hopes to have a facility at commercial scale by 2020.
Developers in Saudi Arabia are currently building the world’s first utility scale, solar-powered desalination plant, which is projected to be online by early 2017. And Monsson Group announced last week it will launch a fully automated and remote controlled desalination plant powered by renewables in Qatar.
Watch the Big Think video of Tuesdays With Bill Nye here:
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Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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