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Clean Power Masdar launches renewable energy desalination project

Published on January 19th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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Could Massive Solar Powered Desalination Plants Help Cancel Out Rising Sea Levels?

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January 19th, 2013 by  

Er…probably not. However, just a few years ago the idea of transferring ultra-massive quantities of seawater out of the ocean and putting it to use on land was a lot less realistic than it is today, mainly because of the massive amount of energy required to pump, desalinate and transport it. What has changed is the availability of low cost, low impact renewable energy technologies, as demonstrated by a new renewable energy desalination project in Masdar, Abu Dhabi.

The new project, which aims to establish a commercially viable renewable energy-powered desalination plant by 2020, was launched as part of the closing ceremonies for the first annual International Water Summit in Masdar, which was part of the sixth annual World Future Energy Summit and first annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Masdar launches renewable energy desalination projectRenewable Energy and Desalination

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has issued a comprehensive brief on the increasing use of renewable energy to desalinate seawater, and Corrado Sommariva, President of the International Desalination Association, provides a neat summary of the importance of transitioning the desalination industry to renewable energy:

“While the initial focus, particularly in the Middle East, was to provide a reliable source of fresh water to ensure the beginning and blossoming of the region’s economy, the emphasis now includes making desalination a sustainable and environmentally responsible industrial solution…not only for the desalination industry, but also for the continued development and success of the region’s community at large.”

The renewable energy trend is particularly important for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) region of the Middle East, which accounts for about half the world’s desalinated water.

Sommariva also notes that the increasing use of renewable energy for desalination must also be balanced against the availability of more renewable energy to the general grid. In other words, for renewable energy-powered desalination to make sense there must be a parallel effort to build more renewable energy capacity into the overall grid, as well as new process improvements that enable desalination facilities to operate with greater efficiency.

It should also be noted that fossil fuel-exporting nations that also have considerable renewable energy resources would be in a better position to sustain their export operations by using more renewable energy at home.

A Note of Caution on Sustainable Desalination

Last fall at the Sustainable Cities – Sustainable Development conference in Abu Dhabi, Dr. Hassan Fath of The Masdar Institute also cautioned against assuming that renewable energy is the only obstacle to sustainable desalination.

According to Dr. Fath, generating renewable energy (in this case, solar thermal power) to run desalination facilities is only part of the challenge. Each region of the globe will face its own particular set of circumstances based on the characteristics of local seawater:

“For the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region, thermal desalination (MSF/MED) is and will continue as the leading technology. The reason is the well-known ‘four Hs’ of the Gulf water – high temperature, high salinity, high turbidity and high marine life. In addition, the presence of radioactive material because of warships and nuclear power plants, still needs to be addressed.”

Dr. Fath also noted that extreme phenomena such as the “red tide” algae blooms can cause desalination plants to shut down. High levels of boron that result from the reverse osmosis process are also a concern.

Say, What About the U.S.A.?

Meanwhile, the U.S. hasn’t exactly been sitting still when it comes to desalination improvements. For example, a team of researchers at MIT has been tackling the desalination energy efficiency angle with a filtration system based on atom-thin sheets of graphene.

The U.S. Navy, which has a deep interest in mobile desalination processes, has also been developing a prototype for a transportable energy-efficient desalination unit that uses about 65% less energy than conventional units.



One of the more interesting developments is a project at the University of Colorado in Denver that uses microbes to treat wastewater while generating both electricity and hydrogen gas, which can be used to power a desalination component for a single integrated facility.

Image: Water by syvwlch

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Note: the Gulf Cooperation Council, formed in 1981, includes the Arabian Peninsula countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman.

For more CleanTechnica content from Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, check out our archive pages for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the World Future Energy Summit, and/or the International Renewable Energy Conference.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Zer0Sum

    CSP is the only real solution to get us to the scale we need to mitigate against the loss of fossil fuels. We only need a 2km/sq array to generate a Gigawatt of electricity supply. The actual cost in terms of dollars to build a facility on that scale is around the same as an ocean liner or large office building. We could build a couple of GW scale CSP generation stations for every major city in the world within the next two – 5 years and be completely energy independent if we had the political will.

    When Obama says it will be a long hard road to sustainability he is defining the future that the entrenched fossil fuel industry wants rather than scientific reality of actually making it happen.

    CSP can be part of a closed loop to provide all the energy and water supply that a coastal city requires. See http://solarphotonpower.com for an example.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “CSP is the only real solution”

      Come on. That’s over the top.

      It’s highly unlikely we could get off fossil fuels in less than 20 years and that would take massive effort.

      We need to start making a massive effort. We need to install all sorts of generation technology. There is no 100% solution for any one place.

      • Zer0Sum

        The only reason it’s unlikely is because the entrenched interests are blocking it all the way and they have control of the various Govt’s and printing presses to do their dirty work. They would rather see perpetual war and suffering than actually make progress to a truly sustainable energy culture. However they are simply wasting their energy now that the remaining reserves of fossil fuel are energy negative.

        There is no scientific or logistical reason why we couldn’t have Gigawatt CSP for every major city in the world within the next 2 – 5 years. It would be the equivalent of building a new skyscraper in each location. Its really not a very big commitment compared to other solutions and considering that we only need a workforce of a few thousand people for each location and existing technology and tools to make it happen it should be a no brainer as we can definitely manufacture the raw components and construct the facilities.

        The key points that CSP has that none of the other solutions offer are that it is nearly 100% efficient, above ground, can be installed pretty much anywhere there is available land and can be manufactured on scale for very reasonable energy costs.

        CSP can also be used much more efficiently than just collecting sunlight, boiling water and generating electricity. It can also be used for industrial scale smelting and heating up uranium or other high energy potential materials if we felt the need.

        If combined with the other viable solutions for energy sustainability we could be living with very minimal fossil fuel use before the end of the decade. Given that we don;t have any choice in the matter of living without fossil fuels we are making ourselves look like compete idiots by not embracing CSP on a much larger scale.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Well, you certainly are the CSP expert.

          Now, how about telling us the LCOE of CSP electricity.

          Tell us about a few CSP plants, how long it took to build them, what their output is, and in what sorts of places they are installed.

          How well would a CSP plant work in Buffalo or Seattle? How about in the California Central Valley where the tule fog can block the Sun for weeks?

  • Ronald Brak

    Pumping straight sea water into the few low lying areas in Antartica is an option for combatting sea level rises, but not really a good one compared to simply reducing fossil fuel use. While it would be energetically cheap to flood the low lying Vestfold Hills area which is located near the coast, it would be like sticking our finger in a dike that’s going to pieces and has more holes than we have appendages.

  • Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    Meanwhile, Sundrop Farms in Australia is already growing tomatoes in a greenhouse with ocean water desalinated by a small CSP installation. Try a Google search for Sundrop Farms.

  • http://profiles.google.com/robtemery Robert Emery

    Chemical desalinization and biological treatment of waste water are two entirely separate processes.

  • jburt56

    Recharging aquifers could have some effect but we’re talking >10000 cubic miles of water.

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