- The Middle East, the Gulf in particular, is leading the drive for renewables in securing water resources.
- Independent water and power (IWP) companies charging ahead in rolling out large-scale renewable water projects.
- Know the top reverse osmosis desalination plants in the world.
Solar power is the grand daddy of the renewable energy family. It's the power behind satellites, lunar and Martian rovers and the International Space Station (ISS).
Why not, down here below, use it to produce drinking water from the sea, which covers more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface? On World Water Day, we look closely into this trend:
In the arid regions where there’s almost a year-round sunshine, the sun offers a limitless power source shining down on us literally everyday — just waiting to be tapped for water desalination.
Tapping solar power for desalination is already happening. Top independent water and power (IWP) companies in the Middle East are leading the charge in this global drive.
Many of the existing desal plants still use liquid fossil fuels. Now there’s a strategic shift towards renewables, solar in particular.
Why use solar power for desalination?
It’s a promising approach. Solar energy is sustainable and renewable. The desalination process is energy-intensive, requiring a huge amounts of electricity to power the pumps and other equipment necessary to extract salt and other impurities from seawater.
Why use solar for desalination?
Solar energy can be used to power the desalination process in two ways:
Solar thermal energy: This involves using the sun's heat to generate steam, which is then used to power a turbine to generate electricity or directly heat the water for desalination.
Photovoltaic (PV) energy: This involves using solar cells to directly convert sunlight into electricity, which can then be used to power the desalination process.
This shift presents several advantages over other sources of energy.
- Sustainability: Solar power is a renewable and sustainable source of energy.
- Cost-effectiveness: Once the solar panels are installed, the energy from the sun is free.
- Environmentally friendly: Solar energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions or other harmful pollutants.
- Accessibility: Solar energy is abundant in many parts of the world, including in the Arabian peninsula, Middle East and North Africa.
Not only will it help curb dependence on liquid fuels, but also usher in an new era. A quiet revolution of sorts. At least in theory, it could help address the increasing demand for freshwater in many parts of the world, while also promoting sustainability. Where sound project proposals are presented, financing isn't hard to find.
Irena, the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Agency, estimates that if only 10 per cent of the installed capacity was replaced by solar-powered desalination, it could save up to 1.5 billion cubic meters of water and avoid the emission of 260 million tons of CO2 annually.
Some of the biggest renewable-powered desalination projects Engie is working on in the Middle East include Jubail 3B, Yanbu 4 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which are utilising solar energy to power desalination plants.
Engie has eight desalination plants in the region, four of which use or will use reverse osmosis (RO) technology.
In February 2023, Engie, together with UAE’s Taqa were also awarded the Mirfa 2 RO Independent Water Project (IWP), which aims to produce up to 120 million imperial gallons per day (MIGD) of potable water, (about 550,000 cubic metres per day). Once operational, it will meet the water demand of up to 210,000 households in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Using renewable energy sources to power desalination plants goes in lockstep with the push for decarbonisation and achieving net-zero carbon targets to address climate change, such as the UAE 2050 and KSA 2060 targets.
The Middle East is a highly innovative region …taking proactive steps to address water security.
Given the huge drop in cost, this makes even more sense with technology progressing fast. Conversely, the downward trend in cost of renewable energy has encouraged even bigger investments.
For its part, the UAE has set the pace for the energy transition for the Gulf, with the region's highest portfolio of renewables.
In 2018, Dubai pushed solar power cost to world-record lows as the largest single-site solar park was then built. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park provided Expo 2020 Dubai site with a dedicated 464MW of clean energy, making it the first Expo in the world to be solely powered by solar energy.
Irena, the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Agency, estimates that if only 10% of the installed capacity was replaced by solar-powered desalination, it could save up to 1.5 billion cubic metres of water and avoid the emission of 260 million tons of CO2 annually.
The UAE’s national “Energy Strategy 2050” targets to produce half its power from renewables — which includes plans to produce 44% of power from renewables, 6% from nuclear. The UAE allocated over $163 billion to meet this goal.
COP 28UN Climate Change Conference from Nov. 30 - Dec. 12 in Dubai
The UAE, which hosts this year’s the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) from November 30 to December 12, 2023 in Dubai, has a strong focus on minimising environmental impact, and is leading investments in the field.
Solar-powered solution to water scarcity
Solar-powered desalination is gaining popularity globally, but moreso in the Gulf. The Irena report estimates that if 10 per cent of the installed capacity was replaced by solar-powered desalination, it could save up to 1.5 billion cubic meters of water and avoid the emission of 260 million tons of CO2 annually.
One of latest Saudi projects involves the conversion of a desal plant, Shuaibah 3, from a thermal water desalination plant into a “greenfield” RO facility using renewable energy to save up to 70 per cent of energy consumption.
Saudi-based ACWA Power and the Saudi Water Partnership Company (SWPC) are spearheading the Shuaibah 3 conversion to produce 600,000 cubic metres of water a day from Q2 2025 to serve the water demand of Jeddah and Makkah, especially during peak demand periods such as the Holy Month of Ramadan and the Hajj seasons.
Billions of dollars are being poured into renewable-powered desalination projects. Irena exects the installed capacity of solar-powered desalination plants to rise. It already rose six-fold from 10 MW in 2013 to 62 MW in 2019, with a total investment of around $750 million.
The Irena report indicates that the global potential for solar-powered desalination is significant — with more than 16,000 desalination plants worldwide, representing a total installed capacity of approximately 95 GW.
Abu Dhabi already hosts some of the biggest solar farms. In 2020, it has complete Taweelah, which has a capacity of 909,200 cubic meters per day (m3/day), is currently the largest reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plant in the world.
16,000number of desalination plants worldwide (source: Irena)
The Irena report estimates that if 10 per cent of the installed capacity was replaced by solar-powered desalination, it could save up to 1.5 billion cubic meters of water and avoid the emission of 260 million tons of CO2 annually.
Renewable RO desalination
Advancements in membrane-based desalination technologies, such as reverse osmosis (RO) and “nano-filtration”, are making them more efficient, cost-effective, and attractive for renewables-powered desalination projects.
“RO is a step forward in supporting the energy transition. It is also more environmentally friendly, as there is little impact on the temperature of the seawater. There’s less impact the seashore or the wide life of the aqua sphere,” said Lahsine.
Yanbu-4 is Saudi Arabia’s first renewable integrated seawater RO project located 140 km west of Madinah, near the town of Ar Rayyis, on the Red Sea coast.
The plant will include solar energy units generating 20 MW of power to reduce grid electricity consumption throughout the desalination process, as well as water storage tanks designed to maintain a capacity of two operational days.
○ It is widely used to produce fresh water from seawater or brackish water, especially in areas where fresh water is scarce or contaminated.
○ The membrane allows water molecules to pass through while trapping and removing dissolved salts, minerals, and other contaminants.
Located 65km north of Dammam airport in Saudi Arabia, the Jubail 3B IWP will include a 60-MWp capacity solar facility – the largest in-house solar capability for a desalination plant in the Kingdom – to optimise electricity consumption and reduce grid reliance.
In addition, it will include one-day storage facilities and 380kV Electrical Special Facilities with 59-km Overhead Transmission Lines (OHL).
In September, Abu Dhabi headquartered utility company EWEC called for expressions of interest (EoI) to build a reverse-osmosis based independent water project to desalinate seawater using low-carbon intensive RO technologies to provide about 100 million imperial gallons per day (MIGD), equivalent to 455,000 cubic metres a day for up to 180,000 households on Saadiyat and Hudayriat Islands.
Renewable desalination companies:
These are some of the biggest companies involved in renewable desalination projects:
Abengoa: Abengoa is a Spanish company that is involved in the development of concentrated solar power (CSP) and solar-powered desalination technologies. The company has built several large-scale solar-powered desalination plants in different parts of the world.
ACWA Power: The Saudi-based company is a leading developer, investor, co-owner and operator of a portfolio of power generation and desalinated water production plants present in 10 countries including in the Middle East and North Africa, Southern Africa and South East Asia regions. It has nearly 70 power generation and water desalination projects in operation, construction and development with an overall estimated portfolio size of SR256.6 billion ($68.15 billion) at project cost as of December 31, 2022.
Aqualia: Aqualia is a Spanish company that is involved in the development of desalination technologies. The company has built several solar-powered desalination plants in different parts of the world, including the Middle East and Africa.
Aquatech International: The US-based global water purification company provides a range of water and wastewater treatment solutions for industrial, infrastructure, and utility applications. The company, founded in 1981, is headquartered in Pennsylvania. It offers water treatment, desalination, water recycling, zero liquid discharge (ZLD), wastewater treatment, and water management. The company has executed more than 1,000 projects worldwide.
ENGIE: Formerly known as GDF Suez, ENGIE is a French multinational company with its headquarters based in Paris, France. The company operates in the fields of power generation and distribution, natural gas and renewable energy, and has operations and offices in many countries around the world.
IDE Technologies: IDE Technologies is an Israeli company that specialises in desalination technologies. The company has developed a hybrid desalination system that combines solar power and reverse osmosis technology.
Solar Water Solutions: Solar Water Solutions is a Dutch company that specialises in solar-powered desalination technologies. The company has developed a compact, low-cost solar-powered desalination system that can be used in remote areas.
Mascara Renewable Water: Mascara Renewable Water is a French company that is involved in the development of renewable energy-based water treatment solutions, including solar-powered desalination technologies.
Metito: Metito Overseas Ltd, headquartered in Dubai, is a global leader and provider of choice for total intelligent water management solutions with operations covering three business areas: design and build, specialty chemicals, and utilities.
Veolia: Headquartered in France, Veolia is a French company with activities – water management, waste management and energy services. Veolia has been involved in various solar-powered desalination projects around the world. Veolia has worked on solar-powered desalination projects in different parts of the world, including Australia, the Caribbean, Saudi Arabia, Spain and others.