GF Blog 23 – Week 31

1st September

Preparing for a TV report on impacts of desalination, then – in the week of ULEZ expansion – I reflect on the need for a better method of decision-making for all environmental experiments.

End of summer at Par Beach

Not a phone mast, a sand monitor!
5 year research programme with Plymouth Uni
Super Blue Moon, with Time & Tide bell © Denise Shaw, thanks!

Correspondence – on bonfires and Earth Ships

COMMENT BOX from John Halkes – Try to find a hedge or bank where you can pile up woody non compostable garden waste (though waste is the wrong word) in a linear run. It forms a fabulous bug bank, hedgehog refuge and rodent home. I haven’t had to light a bug bank in years though I confess to exporting superabundance to the LA green waste depot.

Thank you for this John. As it happens, I have been stacking a great long line by the main suitable hedge, as u suggest, and just ran out of room! Most of it was the topping off of my wildflower banks, which make all these woody stems, very bulky and probably take years to rot down.

COMMENT BOX from Judy – As you say, these hobbit houses are very cute, but my concern would be the lack of natural light in them. They must be so dark inside. Interesting to read about the ones made for the filming in New Zealand. The Earth Ships look a bit better.
Question: Why are they called Earth Ships? Wouldn’t Earth Home be a better description?

Hi Judy. Thanks for this! I agree, the original hobbit houses would have minimal solar gain. The windows are tiny.
Earth Ships, history … I shall write a bit in the blog this week to explain more. The name, apparently is to reflect the self-sufficiency of the place, so you can in effect sail off into the sunset, off grid, and forget the world! (Thanks to Mischa from Low Carbon, for this).

Wikipedia summarises – An Earthship is a style of architecture developed in the late 20th century to early 21st century by architect Michael Reynolds. Earthships are designed to behave as passive solar earth shelters made of both natural and upcycled materials such as earth-packed tires.

So Judy, more about Earth Ships. I first learned about this concept in the 1980s, when I was in Denver for 2 years. It sounded a very hippy kind of thing at that stage, very niche. But today, reflecting back, I believe the idea was brilliant and ahead of its time. Using up old tyres, rammed full of poor-quality earth and rubble, stacking together to make the back wall and sides, seems all good. Thou bear in mind, it is not for the faint-hearted – very grim, hard labour! If you would like instructions, here is a good site but all in US English (so they say tires) and you might also need a translation of the word ‘Berm’, which is  

an artificial ridge or embankment, such as one built as a defence e.g. “berms of shovelled earth”,the%20mixture%20into%20the%20sidewalls.

Sorry the text reproduction is so poor. It mentions the foundations or footings, the flat surface behind, rammed earth in the tyres and use of cement or cob/lime mortar and rocks as filler.

The next source is perhaps a lot more useful because it is UK based and you might even want to go and visit, and take one of their courses.

5 Earthship principles:

Low impact materials: building with local, natural, recycled and reclaimed materials.  There are practical sessions on tyre ramming, clay plastering and glass bottle brick making.

Passive solar design: how a building can use the sun to compliment a heating system.  This includes natural, passive ventilation.

Renewable energy: how it’s possible to live off-grid and generate your energy for electricity and hot water.  We look at the systems at Earthship Brighton, including photovoltaic panels, a wind turbine, wood pellet stove and solar thermal panels.

Rainwater harvesting: how you can harvest, store and recycle water.  We look at the water systems at Earthship Brighton from the first drip to the last drop.  Systems include rainwater tanks, filtration and ultra-violet sterilisation.

Treating waste-water onsite: using plants and natural processes to deal with waste water.  We look at the grey water planters, septic tank, reed bed and compost toilet at Earthship Brighton. 

The next Earthship course is 13th to 15th October.

Moving on, let me explain why all 3 initial photos this time are from Par Beach. The reason is that BBC Spotlight TV worked with me, over a few days, to prepare a report on the likely impacts of desalination, on the unique business operations and ecology of the Bay, some of which are very recently discovered.


By chance this week, I went running on the beach very early one morning. It is a really long stretch of wet sand and seaweed when the tide is out and it was only right at the end climbing off to the left of the photo below, that I discovered the new mast (shown at the start), for monitoring the dunes, within a project called Make Space 4 Sand or MS4S. The equipment will monitor wind speed and directions, then experts will look at the way the wind moves sand. I was really surprised to find the deep research that will happen and the proposed duration – 5 years.

Got to be honest, this dawn pic was another summer when it was actually sunny!

This is a collaborative venture, funded through Defra’s Innovative Resilience Programme.

We will help those communities to prepare Coastal Change Management Plans.

Coming home I not only looked at the webpage, in its early development stages, but also made contact with a spokesman at the Council, Jolyon Sharpe. He told me that a really important partner will be Cornwall Wildlife Trust: –

Ecology and nature

We will be working closely with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT) who will conduct ecological surveys as part of the baselining at each of our study sites. They will further advise on the environmental and nature recovery implications of any actions carried out as part of this project.

Furthermore, CWT provides links between the project and a vast number of community groups.

Is any reader aware of similar research happening in other coastal regions?

The CWT teams have also been at the heart of recent studies beneath the waves. Their report on how they have been mapping seagrass, maerl and other species, plus showing the commercial farming of mussels and seaweed, is fascinating. The full name is Blue Carbon Mapping and as I read through, suddenly I thought ‘oh no, what effect could desalination potentially have on these incredible habitats?’

Based on maps of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority we can now see in detail:-

St Austell Bay supports 359.1 hectares of seagrass which makes it the largest seagrass bed in Cornwall from current knowledge (March 2023), and one of the largest in the entire UK.

The SACFOR scale was used to quantify the abundance of species during the dive. (SACFOR stands for Super abundant, Abundant, Common, Frequent, Occasional, and Rare). Even the healthy-looking amount on the map was recorded as Occasional or Rare.

The new threat

An announcement of location for the desalination plant must be imminent, because official letters have gone out from South West Water to key landowners, saying we will soon be installing new infrastructure for the project. I don’t need to pinpoint the places exactly, to realise that the big challenge will surely be managing the remainder, a waste brine often labelled toxic, which is left after the pure water for drinking has been taken away.

SW Water already manage a desal plant on the Isles of Scilly. To be fair, they inherited this old infrastructure, and have pledged to make improvements, in their latest WRMN Water Resources Management Plan –

AIM On St Mary’s, we will treat saline and groundwater separately then combine, requiring:-      New marine intake / permanent infrastructure to take 100% seawater

New groundwater / brackish water treatment works to improve Water Quality to acceptable standards

Without more detail I can’t say I trust the management with this, having profits for share holders so high in their priorities. If they do not deliver a high-quality result, what might the outcome be?

To answer this, I started with Tim Smedley’s great big book, ‘The Last Drop’ and emailed the author for permission to quote some sections. He is on holiday right now, so hope he will not object: – I discovered that today, 2023, we have over 22,000 desal plants around the world. A staggering number! 4 years ago it was more like 16,000 but even then ‘the world’s desalination plants already discharged 51.8km3 of hypersaline brine a year, which is enough to cover the whole of Florida under 30cm of brine’ … This is why more and more reports say ‘Desal should be the option of last resort’. Then they begin the catalogue of bad news, such as this from the UN Environment programme:-

Disposal of toxic brine is costly & associated with negative environmental impacts  

In most desalination processes, for every litre of potable water produced, about 1.5 litres of liquid polluted with chlorine and copper are created. When pumped back into the ocean, the toxic brine depletes oxygen and impacts organisms along the food chain.

“Increased salinity and temperature can cause a decrease in the dissolved oxygen content, resulting in conditions called hypoxia,” says Manzoor Qadir, Assistant Director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).  This can harm organisms living on or in the bottom of a water body and translate into observable effects throughout the food chain. In addition, certain compounds (e.g. copper, chloride) used in the desalination pre-treatment process can be toxic to organisms in the receiving water.

Discussing this with a friend, we agreed the best possible way forward would be a circular arrangement, another industry that could make use of the salt, copper and chlorine.

Research suggests new economic opportunities associated with brine, such as commercial salt, metal production and the use of brine in food production systems. These again are important elements to consider in Cornwall.

“UN Environment is in the process of setting up a facility to engage the private sector to upscale business models for such wastewater management,” Contact their expert Birguy Lamizana. “we are developing scientific knowledge & policy recommendations to support decisions.”

 Energy use

The brine disposal effect is not the only concern. From a financial and CO2 generation point of view, I found these comments from World Economic Forum & Bloomberg: – desalination uses way too much energy. About 15,000 kilowatt-hours of power is used for every million gallons of freshwater. Many places use diesel generators.

SW Water already spends close to an eye-watering £30m a year on power, of which only 10% is from renewables despite their web page saying  In the South West region we are blessed with some of the UK’s best natural resources for generating clean renewable energy. We can turn some of the rainfall that falls on the higher moors into hydro-electricity and, as the second windiest region in the UK, we are also ideally situated for wind turbines, this is on top of being one of the sunniest areas of the UK and an ideal location for solar power. So, when will they make a start?

If I could get one message to them it would be – ‘Yes we have HYDRO, SOLAR and WIND, but do not forget the possibility of TIDAL-  all these are very obviously available for development in PAR. What will you do to ensure you minimise the energy demands and use the maximum amount of renewables?’  I have emailed through an offer to host a mini-conference and some more detailed proposals.

It was a lot of homework, for a very, very short feature on TV, but the reporter said he will want to do more, when firm plans are unveiled.

ULEZ, keeps coming back

To bring things to a close, I refer not only to the red-letter day, Tuesday 29th, when ULEZ was extended all the way to the far edges of Outer London boroughs, but to the wider issue, which I may roll up into a question for ‘Any Questions’ up the road in Lostwithiel this evening!

 My concern is ‘why do we end up with all the power for massive climate solution schemes, able to be given the green light by one man?’ It is madness that we still do not have a regulatory authority, to oversee the new idea from Day 1 to an end stage, with approval, terms and conditions, or a rejection, all handled in a timely but independently evaluated manner?’ That, I can assure you, will not be the final format of question I ask, but it is one that I sense will not go away.

Leave a comment