Environmental life cycle assessment for potable water production – a case study of seawater desalination and mine-water reclamation in South Africa
Water is becoming a scarce resource in many parts of South Africa and, therefore, numerous plans are being put in place to satisfy the increased urban demand for this resource. Two of the methods currently considered are desalination of seawater and reuse of mine-affected water based on the use of reverse osmosis (RO) membranes. Due to their high energy consumption and associated environmental impacts, these methods have been under scrutinity and, therefore, an LCA was undertaken for both methods. To allow comparison between the two, the functional unit of 1 kL of potable water was specified. Design data were collected for both the construction and operation phases of the plants while SimaPro was used as the LCA analysis software with the application of the ReCiPe Midpoint method. The results indicate that the operation phase carried a greater environmental burden than the materials required for the infrastructure. In particular, electricity production and consumption is responsible for the majority of environmental impacts that stem from the respective plants. The total energy consumption of the proposed desalination plant is 3.69 kWh/kL and 2.16 kWh/kL for the mine-water reclamation plant. This results in 4.17 kg CO2 eq/kL being emitted for the desalination plant and 2.44 kg CO2 eq/kL for the mine-affected plant. A further analysis indicated that replacing South African electricity with photovoltaic (solar) and wind power has the potential to bring significant environmental benefits. The integration of these renewable energy systems with desalination and membrane treatment of mine-affected water has been proven to reduce environmental burdens to levels associated with conventional water technologies powered by the current electricity mix.
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