How new technology solutions are transforming GCC desalination

Modern desalination plants and smart technologies are two elements expected to form the core of the GCC’s approach to the fast growing demand for potable water in the region

Seawater desalination, Desalinated water, Water supply, DEWA, IWPP, Swcc

The GCC region has over the past few years adopted a strategy that aims to expand its total seawater desalination capacity by nearly 40% by 2020 in an effort to meet the rapidly increasing demand for potable water in the region.

The GCC’s current seawater desalination capacity of approximately 4,000 million imperial gallons a day (MIGD) is set to increase to more than 5,500MIGD over the next 5 years as the GCC states invest heavily in increasing potable water supply.

Currently, demand for potable water in the region is about 3,300MIGD, and this is expected to grow to about 5,200MIGD by 2020. While current reserve margins between supply and demand appear to be at comfortable levels, at country and local network levels the supply-demand gaps are much smaller.

For example, while UAE has enjoyed comfortable reserve margins in recent years, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait have faced real challenges meeting demand, especially during the summer months. Ageing plants also do not always operate at full design capacity, further reducing the theoretical total output.

Focus of the water sector in the region is shifting towards sustainable practices, wastewater treatment and recycling, with several utilities and water agencies announcing noticeable projects indicating start of a technological turnaround for the region. Governments in the GCC have allocated approximately $100bn towards implementing better water technologies and energy-efficient desalination.

Urban water supply in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is already above 90% coverage, with the majority of this water (up to 80%) sourced through desalination. In the next couple of years, it is anticipated that water supply in urban regions will reach 100% coverage in these countries.

Utilities such as DEWA (Dubai electricity and Water Supply), are leading by example with Moody’s Investors Services upgrading the company’s rating to investment grade. This has been a result of operational improvements and a sound financial profile.

Investments in the water sector have been on the rise over the past few months, with several projects under execution or bidding/tendering stage. These projects are covering all segments of the water sector, including desalination, independent water and power projects (IWPP), water transmission and distribution, repair and replacement of networks, wastewater treatment and produced water treatment.

In December, Saudi Arabia said it would spend more than SR9 billion $2.4bn in building infrastructure for key water projects in the Makkah region. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), which is responsible for the desalination of seawater, producing and supplying electricity and water to various regions in the Kingdom, recently signed several contracts aimed at increasing water supply to some governorates in the Makkah region as well as ensuring supply to areas without water.

Saudi Arabia has set a new world record with its desalination capacity destined to reach 5 million cubic meters a day, a feat recently acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records. The Kingdom has an ambitious $530mn programme to build nine new desalination plants on the Red Sea coast within 18 months.

The integration of renewable energy into desalination processes is expected to gain momentum at utility scale following the success of a pilot solar powered desalination scheme in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi renewable energy company, Masdar, commissioned five pilot projects to explore the feasibility of using renewable energy to power seawater desalination and test novel, energy-efficient desalination technologies.

As a result, King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) recently signed a contract with Metito Saudi Ltd (Metito) for the design and construction of a seawater desalination plant powered by solar energy and valued at $60mn.

Abdul Latif Jameel Energy (ALJ Energy), headquartered in Saudi Arabia, has also said that it plans to integrate renewable energy in its desalination processes as part of its wider sustainability strategy.

“We are looking at working between [our] water and the power teams to develop a carbon neutral desalination approach, to be able to desalinate with renewable energy,” the company’s chief executive officer Roberto de Diego says.

Wind power has also emerged as another renewable energy for alternative to power desalination plants in UAE. A new study by Masdar Institute shows that the cost of producing water for the UAE’s natural water storage structures, and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the process, could be reduced using wind power for the desalination.

The use of other renewable energy sources, such as nuclear and geothermal energy, to supply water in Abu Dhabi has also been investigated. Spanish company Acciona Agua and Russia’s Rosatom have already expressed their interest to integrate nuclear power generation with seawater desalination.

Last year, Muscat Water, a joint venture between Al Sulaimi Group Holding and AquaSwiss AG, completed the construction of its water desalination plant in Qurayat. The plant will produce 8,000m3 of desalinated water per day for supplying potable water to Qurayat and nearby villages.

Muscat Water aims to produce potable water at very competitive prices through unique differentiating technologies, to assure a high local Omani content, and to develop significant in–country-value through the deployment of Omani manpower and local manufacturing capabilities in its projects.

French company Engie announced in November that the Mirfa Independent Water and Power Plant (IWPP) in Abu Dhabi was now into full commercial operation. The plant adds 1,600 MW of power and 52.5 million gallons (around 200,000 m3) per day (MIGD) of seawater desalination capacity.

The construction of the $1.5bn IWPP, located 160 kilometres away from Abu Dhabi, was initiated in October 2014. It is owned by ENGIE (20%), Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA) (60%) and Abu Dhabi Financial Group (20%).

In August, the UAE’s Federal Electricity and Water Authority (FEWA) said it would increase capacity of Ghalilah desalination plant. The Ghalilah facility, in Ras al Khaimah, whose original project was awarded to Aquatech in 2011, will increase capacity from 15 to 45 million imperial gallons a day (68,000 to 205,000 m3/d).

Reverse Osmosis (RO) in desalination continues to gain prominence in the region as opposed to thermal technology. Its reliability, sustainability and quality are therefore of critical importance to water consumers and of equal concern to water suppliers.

Since the introduction of RO technology, the number of membrane-based desalination plants has increased sharply, and these currently account for 73% of the overall global installed capacity of 88.6 million m3/day from 18,983 plants. 27% of plants worldwide still rely on thermal technology, with 73% using multi-stage flash (MSF) and 27% relying on multi-effect distillation (MED).

Independent Water Power Producer (IWPP) model is expected to gain momentum in the region, a move that will further boost financing for water infrastructure projects, some of which have been put on hold due to budget constraints caused by low oil prices in the GCC.

Utilities in the GCC continue to sign lucrative deals with solutions providers to integrate smart solutions for the effective management of water assets as well as enabling operational efficiency.

Despite a general slowdown in new infrastructure projects across the GCC, optimism remains high in the water sector. Over the next months, the GCC is expected to step up its investments on water infrastructure as demand reaches unprecedented levels. But great emphasis is likely to be placed on the integration of smart solutions into water management systems to guarantee operational and asset optimisation.


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