Sun, Sea & Technology
The burgeoning population and rapid industrialization presents the Arab countries with a challenge to keep up with the demand for water. Falling under one of the world’s most arid regions, the GCC is consistently increasing investments to bolster its extremely important water sector.
Due to low precipitation and limited groundwater to tap, most of the GCC states have been dependent on desalinated seawater as a source of potable water since time long past.
UN OCHA estimates that by 2025, about two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed regions. Desalination has become the most important method to meet water demand in some parts of the world, led by the GCC region, which accounts for more than 40% of total desalination capacity globally. About 60% of feed-water in these plants is seawater.
However, conventional system of energy-intensive desalination does not fit into the criteria of clean energy infrastructure ever since GCC countries have committed to reduce their carbon footprint in Paris COP 21 meet last year. Combining renewable energy source with desalination is a workable solution that helps in cutting emissions and conserving finite fuel resources for exports as well. As per IRENA, desalination units consume 30% of total energy generation in the UAE and Oman.
Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal are being tested for water desalination globally. Solar is being considered as a viable option in the gulf region for meeting sustainable desalinated water supply needs of local communities and industries.
Solar technology processes like Solar Photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) are used in combination with membrane and thermal desalination techniques to operate the energy-efficient desalination system. In particular, CSP plants are suited for electricity, heat generation and water desalination. Though membrane desalination units based on Reverse Osmosis are more widely used, but a thermal process, Multi Effect Distillation (MED), is said to be more energy-efficient in highly saline Arabian seawater.
Saudi Arabia and Dubai have several planned solar desalination projects underway. Saudi, the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, is building the world’s first utility-scale solar-powered desalination plant using membrane technology at Al Khafji with capacity to produce nearly 16 million gallons of water a day. The plant is scheduled to come online early next year. The Kingdom has also planned $500 million solar-powered independent water project (IWP), to be operational by 2020.
Alongwith a desalination facility at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, several pilot projects are happening in the UAE. MASDAR’s pilot project to install five solar-powered desalination plants in Abu Dhabi is expected to start commercial operations in 2020.
The need for energy-efficient desalination will continue to put pressure on the authorities. Affordable water solutions with new technologies will take on greater importance. For now, experts believe that including solar in desalination schemes will potentially bring down the energy requirements and keep up with the demand for clean water.