A winter of exceptionally meager snowfall has revived California’s water woes. Snowpack typically supplies the state with much of its water during the spring and summer, but this year, snow is in short supply, spurring Gov. Jerry Brown to instate permanent conservation measures. Thanks to climate change, the problem is only going to get worse, leaving officials worried about the future of water in the Golden State.

Huntington Beach, a seaside Southern California city, is taking the long view, investing in a new desalination plant that will turn seawater into clean, drinkable H20. While the plant’s supporters say it’s necessary to guard against worsening water shortages, critics say the plant is a waste of ratepayer money, urging officials to manage water more efficiently instead. As temperatures rise and droughts worsen, this conflict is likely to play out in more and more coastal cities.

Central to this fight is the fact that desalination plants require a tremendous amount of energy, making them extremely costly to run. And, if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, it will only make climate change worse. The Department of Energy (DOE) is looking to tackle both problems by funding research aimed at dramatically reducing the cost of using solar power to get the salt out of seawater.

An artist’s rendering of the desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, CA. Source: Poseidon

Most desalination plants, including the one under construction in Huntington Beach, run seawater through a membrane that filters out salt, a process known as reverse osmosis that uses a lot of power, which makes it rather costly. Avi Shultz, acting program manager for the Solar Energy Technologies Office at the Department of Energy, explained that, while reverse osmosis is state of the art for desalination, “it’s still not your first choice for generating freshwater, because it is expensive,” Reverse osmosis produces freshwater at a cost of about $1.50 per cubic meter, “which is really a little bit too expensive for it to be widely used,” he said. In the United States, the cost of water averages a little more than $0.50 per cubic meter, though it varies from place to place.

Reverse osmosis. Source: Puretec Industrial Water

Another method of desalination is thermal distillation. Boil seawater and the steam condenses as freshwater, leaving salt and other minerals behind. Unfortunately, this approach is even more expensive than reverse osmosis. It would take a tremendous amount of energy to boil enough water to supply a city, so, for now, there are no thermal desalination plants anywhere in the United States, Shultz said.

Thermal desalination. Source: UNESCO

If scientists can develop a cheap source of heat, it could make thermal desalination cheaper than reverse osmosis and possibly as cheap as water from a well or reservoir. With this goal in mind, the Department of Energy is putting $21 million toward 14 projects aimed at cutting the cost of using solar energy to power thermal desalination.

Typically, when we think of solar power, we think of photovoltaic solar power — the black panels adorning rooftops, calculators and wristwatches that use sunlight to generate electricity. This initiative focuses on solar thermal power, which uses sunlight to generate heat, which can be used to boil water. Solar thermal desalination plants have several advantages — they require no fuel, generate no air pollution and needn’t be connected to the power grid.

Parabolic mirrors reflects sunlight on a tube filled with fluid that will gather and store heat. Source: Journal of Molecular Liquids

Solar thermal desalination isn’t a particularly new or remarkable idea. Any enterprising fifth-grader can purify seawater with sunlight using parts found around the house. People have been doing it for centuries. The difference is that now experts want to do it cheaply and at scale. At a large-scale solar thermal desalination plant, parabolic mirrors reflect the sun’s light onto a tube filled with molten salt, or another fluid. The molten salt absorbs heat from sunlight and transfers it to the underside of the boiling chamber, which is used to distill seawater.

The Department of Energy is trying to drive down the cost of solar thermal desalination by funding projects that will make each part of the process cheaper. To do so, first they looked at initiatives that would reduce the energy needed. Shultz pointed to a project at the University of North Dakota aimed at purifying briny water from oil and gas wells. “If you actually take water with a lot of salt dissolved into it, heat it up and pressurize it, you can actually get water to go into what’s called a supercritical state. This is a state of matter that’s a little bit like a gas, a little bit like a liquid,” Shultz said. When water goes supercritical, he explained, “all of the salt just falls right out of it.” Increasing pressure means you don’t need as to generate as much heat to get rid of the salt.

Second, the Energy Department funded projects to lower the cost of collecting and storing heat from the sun. California-based startup Sunvapor, for example, is developing a material that can store heat gathered from parabolic mirrors. “If you have a large enough storage tank, you can have solar energy 24 hours a day,” Shultz said. Sunvapor working with Horizon Nut to test the material, using stored heat to dry and roast pistachios.

Parabolic mirrors at a solar thermal power plant at Kramer Junction, California. The pipes contain a fluid which absorbs and transfers heat. Source: KJKolb

Third, the Energy Department is funding research to make the whole system work better. Shultz pointed to a DOE-supported project at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority that makes use of both solar thermal energy and osmosis, in this case forward osmosis. Saltwater goes on one side of the membrane and a “draw” solution goes on the other. Water molecules cross from the saltwater side to the draw solution side. Heating the now diluted draw solution, Shultz said, “spontaneously causes the impurity that you have specifically put in the draw solution to separate out from the freshwater.” Where does that heat come from? The sun.

Finally, the Energy Department is funding research to find out where solar thermal desalination can work. A team at Columbia University is developing software that will determine which solar thermal desalination technologies will function best in which locales. How much sunlight does a particular city get? How salty is the water? The software will be publicly available.

Research areas being funded by the Department of Energy. Source: Department of Energy

The goal of the whole endeavor is to bring down the cost of desalination to around $0.50 per cubic meter, far less than the $1.50 per cubic meter that is typical of reverse osmosis plants. Shultz said that, while reverse osmosis is currently the cheaper option, solar thermal desalination has a much better chance of hitting the target of $0.50 per cubic meter, at which point it can compete with water from conventional sources. Shultz explained that driving down the cost of reverse osmosis means finding a significantly cheaper source of electricity. It would be easier to improve solar thermal desalination, which makes use of heat provided free of charge by the sun.

Notably, high costs aren’t the only barrier to the widespread deployment of desalination plants. Another is the environmental impact. Seaside desalination plants ingest eggs, plankton and other small sea creatures in their intake pipes and expel extra briny saltwater back into the ocean, wreaking havoc on local marine life. Opponents of the Huntington Beach desalination plant have repeatedly cited these risks.

Someday soon, however, desalination may be needed to supply freshwater to arid regions. Israel already draws more than half of its water from desalination plants. Faced with an ongoing water crisis, Cape Town, South Africa has embraced desalination. Now, California is doing the same. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Energy Department is trying to make desalination cheaper and cleaner. Next-generation solar thermal technology could be a game changer.

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.