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.
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.
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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.
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. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.