Green light for Thames desalination plant

The Government has given the go ahead to plans which will see a huge desalination plant built on the banks of the Thames - but it will only be allowed to operate under certain conditions.

The Thames Gateway Desalination Plant now looks almost certain to be built at Beckton and will provide drinking water for up to a million people when the existing water supply network is under strain.

This means it will be used during periods of drought and water shortages or if other water treatment facilities supplying London fail.

It is estimated that, in real terms, the plant will be running about 40% of the time.

Although desalination plants are common elsewhere in the world, particularly on America’s Pacific coast and in the Middle East, this will be the first of its kind to operate on a commercial level in the UK.

When fully operational the plant will provide 140 million litres of water per day.

The plans put forward by utility company Thames Water have proved controversial and have been opposed by both London’s Mayor and environmental pressure groups.

Extracting the salt to provide fresh water is a notoriously energy intensive process and also presents a potential threat to the local ecosystem, as huge volumes of water as pumped out of the river.

The plant’s operation will be regulated by the Environment Agency and the green light was given only after Thames Water agreed to purchase all the energy needed to power it from renewable sources.

The Mayor’s office has said pressure during the inquiry into the plans has also forced Thames to do more about its leaking network of pipes.

“The desalination plant is a vital part of our plans to secure future water supplies to the capital. With pressures such as climate change and population growth the plant is essential alongside our continuing progress in reducing leakage and proposals for a new reservoir in Oxfordshire,” said Thames Water’s director of external affairs and sustainability, Richard Aylard.

“We have now met our leakage target for the first time in seven years, but despite this progress, the desalination plant is still essential if London’s future water supplies are to be safeguarded.

“It may seem hard to imagine now, given the rainfall we’ve been experiencing, but without this plant there would have been a real risk that Londoners would be facing water shortages in future years.

“Today’s decision means we can get on with building the plant which will be technically challenging. However, we have been successfully running a pilot plant to test the process and we are confident that when built the new plant will be able to supply drinking water for up to a million people.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London expressed disappointment in the decision to go ahead with the plant.

“The decision to approve the desalination plant is a step backwards in the battle against climate change,” she said.

“The pressure brought to bear on Thames Water by the scrutiny of the Public Inquiry clearly led them to further prioritise their sorely-needed leakage reduction works and make significant changes to the energy supply for the plant itself, changes they had previously said were either impossible or too expensive.

“We will continue to put pressure on Thames Water to ensure that the environmental impact of the plant is minimised.”

Sam Bond

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