ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Geographically and culturally, California and Abu Dhabi could not be much further apart.
But the U.S. state known for its laid-back lifestyle and the capital of the conservative United Arab Emirates both have significant water scarcity issues – and a thirst for developing innovative technological solutions to the problem.
Abu Dhabi, a coastal city of about 1 million inhabitants that straddles vast gravel and sandy deserts, uses tremendous amounts of water, notably for agriculture and irrigation systems, to keep things relatively green. The country’s water appetite has increased so much over the past two decades that experts have warned its groundwater could dry up within 15 years. It officially qualifies as “water stressed”
After experiencing a population boom in the 1970s, the Emirates turned heavily toward desalinating seawater and its salty groundwater to meet its growing water needs. By 2008, according to local media reports, desalinated water accounted for 24 percent of total water demand and almost all drinking water, which carries significant environmental and financial costs.
In 2006, Abu Dhabi’s renewable-energy company Masdar launched its sustainable planned city initiative, Masdar City. Four years ago, Masdar decided to take on the desalination challenge using its most abundant sustainable resource: solar power.
It launched a renewable-energy desalination pilot program in conjunction with four companies – Abengoa, Suez Environnement, Sidem/Veolia and Trevi Systems – to research and develop “energy-efficient, cost-competitive desalination technologies” based on solar energy and have a commercial-scale facility in operation by 2020. Each of the companies has developed a seawater desalination plant in a facility located in nearby Ghantoot. In 2016, French company Mascara NT launched a pilot for a fifth experimental “off-the-grid” plant.
Water Deeply spoke with Mohamed Abdelqader El Ramahi, Masdar’s director of asset management, about the project and the lessons they’ve learned about sustainable desalination that could be exported to places like California.
Water Deeply: What’s different about the way that you built the Ghantoot plants? How did you adapt them for renewable-energy use?
Mohamed Abdelqader El Ramahi: Desalination has always been a complex process and that’s why it is expensive. Seventy percent of the cost of desalination comes from the energy and that’s not always environmentally friendly.
Coupling desalination with renewables has two primary challenges. First, the footprint of renewable energy is usually large in terms of size, so when you have a quite large capacity of desalination with high energy-intensity, this means the capacity required for both renewables and the space required is large. Second, you need solutions not only to be sustainable but also economically viable. So sustainability is not only environmental, it’s also financial.
These were the primary challenges that perhaps delayed the coupling, or the happy marriage, between desalination and renewables.
But with Masdar’s desalination program we are adopting the latest innovations with an aim to dramatically reduce the energy-intensity required for desalination, plus making it more economically viable.
Now we have demonstrated that advanced membrane-based desalination processes are a feasible option to desalinate the highly saline seawater of the Arabian Gulf, consuming at least 25 percent less energy than the widely used thermal desalination processes in the Middle East. Combining it with renewables becomes very adaptable and very, very possible.
Water Deeply: What are the biggest challenges, the stumbling blocks that are still holding you back?
El Ramahi: It’s the perception, basically. All new innovations are received with suspicion. Through my previous experience working with a utility service provider, I know that they are usually risk averse. When you introduce new technologies, their first question is, are we the first ones to try it? Where are your reference projects? We need a certain number of reference projects to ensure reliability and accountability, etc.
Water Deeply: How much of this country’s desalination needs can be met using your methodology?
El Ramahi: As much as the need arises, but we have to understand that there is a commercial strategic commitment when you sign WPAs – Water Purchase Agreements – because the developer pays the capital expenditure and operating expenditure.
The governments or the off-takers are committed to pay for a minimum capacity of production during a certain duration of the Water Purchase Agreement. Usually it’s 25 to 30 years for the developer to be paid back his investment plus his revenue.
It will be a bit challenging for them to, for example, decommission some of the older plants and introduce new ones. It could be done with the very older plants that are over 20 years because of efficiency and maybe some wastage. But in general, for new expansion, the intention is to adopt and bring technology that is good for us.
Water Deeply: Any percentage that you’re targeting?
El Ramahi: We’re targeting at least 20 percent of the capacity in Abu Dhabi, and around 10 percent of the global capacity in the first five years. Then, as we prove our reliability and results, we will become the preferred option in terms of cost and environmental impact.
Water Deeply: Do you plan to take this methodology beyond the UAE, setting up your technology elsewhere?
El Ramahi: That’s always been the plan. Water scarcity has become an international trend, so water-scarce and water-stressed countries are not isolated here in the region.
Water Deeply: So are you talking to California?
El Ramahi: Not quite. We are still in the pilot program phase. The first step is to benchmark and see which of the five partners meet the required quantitative and qualitative criteria and exceed expectations in terms of commercial and technical aspects.
We are targeting the international community at large. We are participating in bids, we are competing with the industry to win bids on a competitive basis and on the best performers in terms of efficiency and in terms of levelized cost of water, and in terms of how much carbon footprint we can avoid. Theoretically, we say the carbon footprint is zero because not only it is a less energy-intensive process but it uses renewable energy, therefore offsetting the carbon footprint. With this, I believe we can revolutionize the industry as we know it today.
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