Clean Power

Published on May 10th, 2014 | by Zachary Shahan


Revolutionizing The Water Desalination Industry?

May 10th, 2014 by  

Group picture 1_solar desalination conf_May 2014

First of all, let me say that water desalination is not my expertise. But based on my limited knowledge of the industry and what I learned this week at Abu Dhabi Ascent, the news below is quite big.

As stated at the press conference announcing the four winning companies chosen to participate in Masdar’s “Renewable Energy Water Desalination Program,” the goal of the program is to “revolutionize” the water desalination industry, particularly by bringing water desalination efficiency up to another level. If successful, this will have great environmental as well economic benefits.

The four winning companies were awarded contracts from Masdar and their task is to develop “energy-efficient seawater desalination technologies efficient enough to be powered by renewable energy.” Pilot project sites from the companies are under construction and almost ready for launch.

A press release regarding the new program states: “Each company, selected for the project because of their leadership and innovation within the desalination sector, will build and operate its own test plant to develop and demonstrate desalination technologies over the course of 18 months. This timeframe will enable the companies to gauge which desalination technologies emerge as the most efficient and therefore have potential to be powered by renewable energy. All of the four test plants will demonstrate innovations in advanced membrane technologies, such as reverse osmosis and forward osmosis, which are more energy efficient processes than the thermal processes currently in use in most of the desalination plants throughout the UAE. As part of the pilot project, each of the four companies will collaborate with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – a research-driven, graduate university in Abu Dhabi.”

Dr. Ahmad Belhoul, the CEO of Masdar, started out the press conference by focusing on the need to reduce the large environmental ramifications of water desalination. But he then noted complementary economic goals. “We also want to make the water desalination technology affordable,” he stated. Water desalination has been around for a long time, but one of the big weights holding it back from broad adoption is its high costs.

Aside from the obvious environmental and economic benefits of more efficient desalination, affordable water desalination will help to improve UAE national security and overall water security, and it could do the same for many other nations.

“Water security is one of the most pressing issues around the world,” noted Masdar Chairman Dr. Al Jaber, “but with the Gulf region’s climate we have limited natural options. Combining best-in-class desalination technologies with our abundant solar resources is a logical step toward securing our country’s water supplies.”

Also important to the “Renewable Energy Water Desalination Program” was examining the desalination–food nexus, Dr. Ahmad Belhoul noted.

Her Highness Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi, followed on with a discussion of the tremendous water scarcity challenges the UAE faces, but also how much other areas of the world are affected by this water crisis. 40% of global population is currently affected by water scarcity, she noted. “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in absolute water scarcity. 2/3 of the global population will be facing some level of water scarcity.”

Al Mubarak noted that desalination will grow a great deal in order to help address this growing crisis. However, she noted the economic, energy, and tremendous environmental problems that come with current desalination technologies. Desalination accounts for 31% of the UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Discharge of brine into the Arabian Gulf is also causing large ecosystem problems in that ecosystem.

Al Mubarak gave kudos to the pilot program noted above, as it aims to transition the UAE (and broader world) to a decoupling of water desalination and fossil fuel use.

Following Al Mubarak’s great commentary, CEO of Masdar Dr. Ahmad Belhoul added: “Today, the Gulf region accounts for over 50% of global water desalination.” He said that this program is not a token project but aims to create commercially viable water desalination technologies that utilize renewable energy. The four companies that were awarded the opportunity to participate in this pilot program will develop projects with the following capacities:

  • Abengoa 1080 m3/day
  • Degrémont (Suez) 100 m3/day
  • SIDEM (Veolia) 300 m3/day
  • Trevi Systems 50 m3/day

Representatives from each of the companies spoke at the press conference. I found the comments from Trevi Systems CEO John Webley particularly interesting. He noted that they were trying to create a very environmentally friendly system that was inspired by nature. “How does a fish drink water?” is the question the company asked, according to Webley. The goal is to mimic that process in the company’s technology. Webley also noted that Trevi Systems was the smallest company awarded a contract and seemed particularly grateful.

Commence of piloting officially started on Monday. The hope is that production will start in January 2015.

Here’s a bit more information about the pilot program from the press release noted above:

The entire pilot project test facility will be located in Ghantoot, 90 kilometers northwest of Abu Dhabi. Masdar selected Ghantoot because of its easy access to deep seawater and the availability of existing utility connections from a now-decommissioned desalination plant. During the course of the project, the test plants will also provide 1,500 cubic meters of potable water per day to Abu Dhabi’s water infrastructure, enough to meet the water requirements for around 500 homes.

Masdar’s awarding of these contracts to these companies was announced during the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a two-day, high-level meeting convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to encourage bold actions to address climate change. Hosting government, business and civil society leaders, the Abu Dhabi Ascent is designed to build momentum for the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York, which aims to catalyze transformative action and build political impetus in advance of the 2015 UNFCCC Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Top image courtesy Masdar. Other images by Zachary Shahan / CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

People in top image, left to right: John Webley, Chief Executive Officer of Trevi Systems; Faraj El-Awar – Program Manager at UN Habitat; Dr. Ahmad Belhoul, Chief Executive Officer of Masdar; H.E Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi; Xavier Joseph, CEO of Sidem/Veolia Gulf Countries; Pierre Pauliac, CEO Degrémont; and Carlos Cosin, Chief Executive Officer of Abengoa Water.

*My trip to the UAE for Abu Dhabi Ascent was covered by Masdar.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Rick Kargaard

    What do these figures include? I have a 3 person household and regular overnight guests. I paid for 9 cubes of water that we used last month That is less than a 1/3 cube per day or .10 cube per person/day. No water was used for irrigation.
    We use showers and have double flush toilets, but otherwise make no real effort at water conservation.
    This indicates to me that potable water usage could be greatly reduced through conservation and therefore reducing the need for desalination.
    The only really important cost is the total cost per person or household. If each unit costs more, use less units

  • Henry WA

    Actually I believe that desalination has an important role as a back to front storage method at least for those cities or countries that need desalination for their fresh water needs. It seems likely that California may soon fall into this category. Perth in Western Australia is planning for desalination to provide more than 50% of its water needs going forward. The balance comes from the natural deep aquifers, but there are concerns of depletion and contamination of these water sources. Dams and natural water run-off now produce very little. The reverse osmosis process is used for the current desalination plants, even so they require high levels of electricity. However there are few other costs and I understand it is a process that is easily slowed or shut down when the power is not available. Accordingly it is a good mix with wind and solar. When the wind power is there, you use the excess for desalination, but at times of otherwise peak use or lack of wind etc., the plant can be closed down. This can be a more efficient use of resources than a peaking plant which is rarely used.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Internationally energy is supposed to be about 70% of the cost of desalinated water. I’m not sure how that works out in Australia with our slightly higher capital costs. And we have extremely high retail electricity prices, but an industrial scale user like a desalination plant will get it much cheaper. It’s easy enough for desalination plants to operate during periods of cheap electricity, but not during a drought when other sources of water are limited ans so the plant has to operate full time. Unfortunately droughts are also the time when there is the least hydroelectricity. But the answer is simple. Plenty of solar and more wind, In combination they might give us low cost electricity for 17+ hours a day most days.

      • Henry WA

        In Perth the drought issue doesn’t arise. At any time of the year, Perth gets less than 20% of its drinking water from the dams. The aquifer is there to draw water when required, it is just unwise to draw too much on a long term basis and the desal plants are there as a primary water resource not as protection against drought. A wind farm was built at the time of the first desal plant, but as you know since then our politicians (except SA, Tasmania and of course the ACT) have turned against renewables, just when both the environmental and the economic arguments became unanswerable – crazy but true.

        • Ronald Brakels

          It’s certainly less of an issue for Perth than other capitals, but rainfall still has an effect. Of course a lack of hydroelectricity in dry years isn’t really a problem as the Perth grid has a only has 2 MW of hydro capacity. The solution for Western Australia is probably to oversize its desalination capacity so it can be shut down during the evening peak.

          And fortunately, at current costs of wind and solar power, Australia will never build another coal power plant and any new natural gas plants will only be for peak use, despite what politicians do at the behest of their special friends. Fossil fuels are beaten in the long term, they’re just fighting for the right to do the most damage possible in the short term so they can make more money at the cost of human lives before they go.

    • Rick Kargaard

      Seems to make a lot of sense to me.

  • JamesWimberley

    Three cubic meters a day strikes me as a huge amount for a notional house. I don’t suppose Abu Dhabi’s migrant workers use anything like that amount.
    Snark aside, it’s a good project. The scale is big enough to find out if new approaches really work.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Well, Australia uses about 20 cubic meters per day per household, but actual households only use about about half a cubic meter per day. So without clarification water use per household isn’t very helpful. Particularly in Dubai where households range from extended families of dozens, to a recommened no more than eight to ten guest workers per room, to a considerable number of singles. Apparently household size is abot 4.5 which would put household water consumption at close to an Australian level and below the US. No idea if guest workers went into that 4.5 figure.

      • Rick Kargaard

        What do these figures include? I have a 3 person household and regular overnight guests. I paid for 9 cubes of water that we used last month That is less than a 1/3 cube per day or .10 cube per person/day. No water was used for irrigation.
        We use showers and have double flush toilets, but otherwise make no real effort at water conservation.
        This indicates to me that potable water usage could be greatly reduced through conservation and therefore reducing the need for desalination.
        The only really important cost is the total cost per person or household. If each unit costs more, use less units

        • Ronald Brakels

          Well, I can tell you that Australians now use about 150 liters a day for household use. This is apparently about 40% showers, flushing and baths. 15-20% laundry. And 10% in the kitchen. Beats me where the other 30-35% goes. So using 100 liters a day per person would be similar to many Australian households, particularly if you’re not putting water on the garden as many old people still do here (You’re giving water to a plant? What are you, crazy?) or washing cars. (Washing cars is 10% of household water use in Dubai.)

          And water use can be cut considerably through conservation. Australians cut houshold use by about a third on account of drought earlier this century and useage has remained lower than it was, despite floods trying to wash us out to sea in the meantime. Which was followed by fires, which was followed by more floods, which was followed by more fires. On the bright side our Prime Minister is sure global warming can’t make bush fires worse on account of how heat and fire apparently aren’t correlated. Who woulda thunk it?

          • Rick Kargaard

            Actually, with a compact car, I can wash it by hand with about 6-10 liters of water. Just use the hose for a quick rinse. One more argument for small cars
            Watering a vegtable garden is a valid use of water but doesn’t make a lot of sense if expensive potable water is all that is availaible.
            Gray water, or stored rainwater, applied carefully is adequate in most areas.
            Australia has a much drier and hotter climate than Canada so my comments may not be very relevant to your area.

  • LookingForward

    Every country should start doing what Japan did with nuclear, only with coal. They stopped all there nuclear, which was a very high percentage of there generation, in 6 months time. And still the country is doing great, adding renewables at a tremendous rate. And slowly shutting down there coal.
    The US and other countries could do the same thing only with coal, it will cost alot, infact you can forget about GDP growth if the US does it, but it will be earned back in a few years. The US has enough gas generation capacity to cover the losses along with a lot of energy saving, black outs can be kept to a minimal of any at all.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We’re going to close about 25% of our coal plants over the next couple of years. The EPA regs which the Supreme Court upheld mean that pollution levels must be brought down to established levels. For a couple hundred coal plants the cost of complying is too high, so they will be closed.
      Next up, the Supreme Court also upheld the rights of states to sue other states for pollution crossing state lines. My guess is that will get some more coal closed when environmentally conscious state A sues upwind coal burning state B.

      We’ll be busy installing renewables to replace those coal plants for a while. No reason to mess up the economy by closing things faster than we can replace them. That would reduce the amount of money needed to build renewables.

      Then with a couple, three more years of dropping wind and solar prices the remaining coal plants are going to be struggling to stay in business. It won’t make any financial sense to build a new coal plant.

      Seems to me that we’re set for a few years. Perhaps 3 to 5 years from now we’ll have to figure out how to get the next round of coal plants closed. Do remember, our coal plants are old and will have to be replaced with something over the next 20 or so years.

      • JamesWimberley

        The political question for American progressives is how to get Hillary Clinton and Congressional Democrats to commit in 2016 to a ramping up of climate ambitions to German levels. And of course how to give them a working majority in Congress so they can do it.

        HRC’s big issue when Bill was President was health care. They failed, but Obama (with Pelosi and Reid) finally got ACA through. On health, all she can and need do is mind the store. So she needs a different signature domestic ambition.

        • Bob_Wallace

          How to give them a working majority in Congress is our job.

          If we don’t do that then we needn’t worry about how high on the next president’s agenda climate change happens to be.

          Don’t appoint a new president yet. We’ve got three years to get to that point. I’m in favor of taking a look at whomever might be interested.

          The solar subsidy drops to 10% at the end of 2016. In a couple more years that extra 20% won’t be missed very much. I haven’t found (with minimal searching) how long the 10% lasts. But I suspect, based on installation costs of well under $1.50/W in Italy and China, that subsidies just won’t be needed for very long.

          I’m assuming that this is roughly correct…

          “A leaked draft of the report sent to governments in December suggests that in order to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) by the end of the century — the stated goal of international climate talks — emissions need to fall by 40-70 percent by 2050.”

          Long before 2050 the US will have to replace pretty much every single coal plant now in operation. With wind now producing for 3c, solar in the 6-9c range and falling fast, and very promising storage emerging I just don’t think we’ll be tempted to build any more coal. And I suspect rising NG prices will cause us to shy away from gas.

          Coal is now about 40%. Get rid of coal over the next 35 years and we meet the bottom end of the “dodge the worst” range. Cheaper storage should take gas peakers out of service. That will take us closer to the 70% level.

          In short, I don’t think we need a lot from the federal government at this point. Prevent anti-renewable legislation. Build more transmission. That’s about it.

          Government has done most of the heavy lifting needed. Private money smells profits and is starting to take over.

          Saved by big business. Oh, the irony….

          • Omega Centauri

            There will be challenges, and not just political ones. We will have to develop storage solutions, the current front runners are mostly targeted at voltage support and providing a time buffer so other sources can ramp. Throwing out the ramping plants will be a lot tougher.

            Then there is a lot of fuel used without being turned into electricity. Replacing this is going to require electrification of lot of various uses. Getting to that 70% by 2050, for the overall economy is going to be tough, and I think only possible with a real commitment, which doesn’t look likely to happen.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Lower cost energy storage will definitely be useful, but it is not necessary to mostly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. As long as what people pay for electricity reflects what it actually costs to produce a great deal of consumption will switch to periods where it is sunny and/or windy and this will free up existing hydroelectric capacity and pumped storage to meet the evening demand and lulls in renewable production. And it can be much cheaper to overbuild renewable capacity than to build energy storage at current costs. But energy storage costs are coming down and that just makes things easier.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We have an acceptable, affordable storage technology – pump-up hydro. We have far more sites than we could ever imagine using. What we’re looking for now is even better options. Specifically one that can be distributed.

            Personal transportation. I’m pretty convinced EVs are going to rapidly push out ICEVs once we have ~200 mile range EVs for no more than $25k.

            I think we’ll be well on our way by 2030 and by 2050 ICEVs will be collector’s items. On par with horse drawn wagons.

            Airlines are working hard to find alternative fuels. I think they’ll see that problem gets solved.

            HSR runs on electricity. We’re getting electric buses. Light rail is electric. Subways are electric.

            Most of our industry already runs on electricity.

            Keep remembering. Pretty much every piece of equipment we use will be replaced in the next 35 years. Stuff wears out. People are going to replace with electricity most of the time, when available, because operating costs are so much lower.

          • Omega Centauri

            Take a look around next time you go to a place that cooks food. Ovens, grills, all powered by gas. Almost all our buildings and most of our water is heated by gas. Industrial process heat. Agricultural drying. The list goes on and on. This is a lot of stuff. In theory it could mostly be replaced by electricaly powered stuff, but it will be a large change. In order for it to occur, it will take some willpower.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sure. But – 35 years.

            If we really have 35 years to pull our use down 70% (I think we should avoid settling for 40%) that’s a lot of time to convert fast food grills to electric and lower building heating needs/switch to heat pumps. Or to increase our supply of biogas from landfills and municipal sewage to displace NG.

            I’m not saying that there isn’t hard work left to be done. I’m just saying that it looks to me that we’re on a path to deal with our grid and transportation needs.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Well, the change over to electric may not take much willpower. In Australia most households are all electric – cooking, heating, hot water, etc. Electricity used to be cheap and and natural gas pipes weren’t so extensive, particularly in the hotter parts of the country. Now that Australian grid electricity is ridicu-spensive we haven’t had time to change to gas and our natural gas prices are now soaring to save us the trouble. When solar and wind start pushing down generating costs towards zero during periods of low demand electrcity will become cheaper for households and it will make sense for industrial processes to use electrical resistance heating at least some of the time and to use at least some energy storage in the form of preheating materials. It’s already happening. Thanks to rooftop solar South Australia’s grid demand right now at 11:00 in the morning is about what it will be at midnight. And introducing a carbon price doesn’t take so much will power as just some common sense. I’ve engaged in discourse with many Americans online and they all seem like very sensible people, though some of them are real jokers who pretend that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas or that Australian murder rates have soared since we banned the kid across the road from having guns, but I’m sure they can’t be for real. That would make them as nutty as some Australians.

          • Omega Centauri

            Quite as few Americans are just as nutty as that. They cure for anything governmnet is less taxes. The cure for gun violence is more (and more powerful) guns.

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