Quenching the thirst
How technological innovation is improving the cost
As we reach the mid-point of a typically sweltering summer, many parts of the Middle East have not seen a drop of rain in months. Yet this is the time of year when water demand reaches a peak.
With very little in the way of natural water supply, large parts of the region, particularly the GCC, rely heavily on desalination plants to meet demand, which is rising fast, in lock step with rapid economic growth.
In a 2012 report, Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) noted that desalination capacity in the MENA region alone would rise more than five-fold from 21 million cubic meters per day in 2007 to nearly 110 million cubic meters per day in 2030.
Electricity accounts for around one third of the cost of desalinating a cubic metre of water and the energy intensive process is putting ever more pressure on providers and the governments that heavily subsidise both power and water. This rising demand is driving technological innovations to boost the efficiency and lower the cost of producing desalinated water.
“Innovation is the need of the hour in this scenario,” according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report. “Several utilities and water agencies are announcing noticeable projects, indicating the start of a technological turnaround. The GCC governments have allocated approximately $100 billion towards the implementation of better water technologies and energy-efficient desalination.”
Kshitij Nilkanth, programme manager, environmental technologies practice, Frost & Sullivan, tells Utilities Middle East: “In recent years, the market has seen a slew of new concepts, including forward osmosis, membrane distillation, tri-hybrid applications using nano-filtration and low temperature distillation.
“These technologies all aim at energy-efficient desalination and lowering the energy footprint of plants. With the increasing focus of the GCC to adopt environmentally sustainable practices, these new technologies will have promising scope,” he adds.
The two major processes used today are thermal desalination (multi-stage flash or multiple effect distillation) and membrane desalination (reverse osmosis). Large desalinated water producing countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE have traditionally favoured thermal technologies due to the low cost and abundance of fossil fuels.
One of the reasons for this is the high number of large (over 100,000 m3/day) desalination plants in the GCC, says Kshitij Nilkanth. “At such capacities multi-stage flash (MSF) is a proven technology. However, in recent years, reverse osmosis (RO) has established itself as a reliable and efficient technology for desalination. The planned plant capacities of RO are increasing every quarter in the GCC, thereby exhibiting economies of scale.”
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Improving cost and efficiency
Doosan, Aquatech, Veolia, AES Arabia, Metito and Wetico are just some of the companies involved in the sector in the region. Dow Chemical Company will be establishing a membrane manufacturing facility in the KSA to produce high-tech RO membranes to cater to the Middle East desalination market. Companies like Aqualyng are continuously working on energy recovery in desalination.
Sidem and Entropie, part of the Veolia Group of France, are leaders in multiple effect distillation (MED) with more than 250 projects successfully delivered representing over 80% market share.
“Some technologies are being developed with the target to reduce the energy required, or improve the robustness of the existing processes,” says Veolia’s Herve Faujour, technical and performance director. “Energy reduction [through new concepts] could be up to half in the most optimistic simulations (under particular conditions), but such solutions are not yet available for large scale implementation, and still bring technological challenges for durable performance,” he adds.
“They represent still a minor portion of the volumes desalinated worldwide, but the technological progress could make them more cost effective and possible to present at industrial scale in the near future.”
However the cost of the existing desalination processes is falling thanks to the lower cost of production of the components, mainly membranes through economies of scale, Faujour adds. “Technological improvement is shown through turbo-compression for thermal desalination and through energy recovery from the brine of the reverse osmosis. The result of both is a continuous reduction of CAPEX and OPEX for desalination projects,” he says.
Veolia is developing the desalination component of the Az Zour North power and water project currently under construction in Kuwait in partnership with compatriot company GDF SUEZ, which has the largest footprint of any multinational operating in the power and water sector in the GCC region. Once completed, Az Zour North, which uses thermal desalination (MED), will provide 1,500 MW power and 486,000 m3/day of desalinated water, or a huge 20% of Kuwaiti water demand.
Power and water projects tend to go hand in hand in the GCC, given the amount of energy traditionally required to drive the desalination process. But that may not be the case forever as the reverse osmosis process continues develop.
“Given the disparate demand profile for power and water and also for the flexibility in operation it affords, the future should see water demand met increasingly through standalone reverse osmosis plants rather than through integrated power and thermal desalination plants,” says, Lucas Hautvast, CEO & President of GDF SUEZ Energy South Asia, Middle East & Africa.
“The energy efficiencies [of desalination plants] are continuously improving and have improved by well over 10% over the last few years. However, several of the improvements result in additional cost and the optimal selection varies from project to project depending on various parameters such as fuel cost, input power cost, etc.
“The capital expenditure cost and operating costs are dependent on a variety of macro-economic factors. Nevertheless, given the technological advancement in recent years, the life cycle cost is expected to go down over a period of time.”
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As the GCC economies look to reduce their dependence on fossil fuel and explore renewable energy sources, primarily solar, it is certain that solar desalination will be the way forward, says Frost and Sullivan. However, its path is still unclear, as the two solar technologies, namely, solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar power work best inland while the source of desalination lies in the sea.
Nevertheless Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have taken the first steps in developing solar desalination projects. The KSA, through its King Abdullah Initiative, is expected to produce 30,000 cubic metres per day of desalinated water in the first phase and will extend capacities to 300,000 m3/day by phase two. There are also plans to extend this initiative throughout the Kingdom in phase three.
US photovoltaic (PV) panel manufacturer First Solar is among companies looking at solar desalination solutions and has built a promising pilot project in Australia.
Dr. Raed Bkayrat, vice president for Saudi Arabia at First Solar, says: “We’ve looked very closely at the suitability of using our thin film module technology to power desalination plants and, in fact, already have a successful reference project that demonstrates just how clean solar electricity can help address the unique energy needs of water-scarce regions.
“The 10 megawatt (MW) Greenough River Solar Farm in Geraldton, Western Australia, was developed to offset the power requirements of a desalination plant south of the city of Perth.
“The plant, which was engineered and constructed by First Solar and is powered by our advanced thin film modules, was Australia’s first utility-scale solar power plant, with The Water Corporation of Western Australia signing a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the owners.
“The plant effectively demonstrates just how solar PV can help reduce the carbon footprint per cubic meter of water desalinated. We’ve seen from our experience in Australia and our research that thin film photovoltaic technology can either be indirectly used to offset electricity consumption or directly deployed to power smaller, standalone reverse osmosis desalination plants or as part of a hybrid configuration for larger reverse osmosis facilities.
“And with electricity consumption accounting for about one third of the cost of desalinating a cubic meter of water, reliable, affordable solar electricity can have a tremendous impact on the economics of desalination.”
As solar PV becomes increasingly cost competitive with conventional fuels, the benefits are twofold, says Dr. Bkayrat. “First, there are the clear economic benefits from reducing consumption from conventional sources and second, solar can significantly help reduce the carbon footprint of desalination operations.
“The economic benefits would vary between the region’s energy importing and exporting countries. For the net energy importers, the economic benefit derived from deploying solar PV to power desalination is uncomplicated since fuel saved is money saved. For the net energy exporters, the economic case for desalination powered by solar electricity is far more complex due to the presence of heavy subsidies.
“However, while one might argue that an oil-rich country can afford to self-consume a significant percentage of its daily oil production, the opportunity cost of self-consumption cannot be discounted. Exporting a barrel of oil is far more lucrative for an energy exporter than consuming it. In addition to being net energy exporters, these countries share another common denominator – their potential to tap into solar energy.”
Water production activities are increasing in the Middle East but so is the significant need for additional water owing to the growth in population and proliferation of industrial and agricultural activities, says Kshitij Nilkanth of Frost and Sullivan.
“Implementation of efficient water management is critical to sustain this essential resource for the future. Desalination will continue to grow in the region and will be the backbone of water demand fulfilment. Energy efficiency in desalination will be the focus area both in the near and long term.”