Masdar finds answer to water desalination in renewables

A new project by Abu Dhabi's Masdar is turning seawater from the Arabian Gulf into potable water, relying entirely on renewable energy. Vision finds out why it is an important milestone not only for the UAE, but also for the region.

Trees along a pathway in a desert clearing halfway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi lead the way towards the sea, where pipes and tanks whir with life. Masdar, the UAE’s renewable energy company, has developed and now begun operations on a desalination plant that produces potable water from seawater. What makes this project unique is that it is powered completely by renewable energy, rather than the traditional method of burning fossil fuels like oil and natural gas - backbones of regional economies.

“We not only focus on deploying renewable energy and building a world class research facility, our mandate is to leverage this platform to address challenging issues relevant to our region,” said Dr Ahmad Belhoul, chief executive of Masdar. “We need to find an answer that is affordable and scalable.”

What began as a research project two years ago is now a solution in operation: a desalination plant using new technologies that will provide enough water supply for 500 homes, or 1,500 cubic meters, on a daily basis. During the pilot phase, which will last for at least 18 months, Masdar and its partners will test the performance of the plants with the aim of scaling up the technology and commercializing the water in 2016.

'In Abu Dhabi, about half of all fuel used in the utilities is desalinating water; in Saudi Arabia it’s probably over 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day and rising. And water is sold cheap or even free so there is a massive opportunity cost.'

Glada Lahn, Senior energy analyst at Chatham House in London

The World Bank marks the Gulf region as the driest in the world, with urgent needs to address water and food scarcity. As such, desalination has always been important for irrigation and drinking water, but standard methods are costly and involve burning precious fossil fuels. This contributes to high greenhouse emissions and losing out on potential gains from exporting oil and natural gas.

“It’s literally a case of oil and gas for water,” said Glada Lahn, senior energy analyst at Chatham House in London. “In Abu Dhabi about half of all fuel used in the utilities is desalinating water; in Saudi Arabia it’s probably over 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day and rising. And water is sold cheap or even free so there is a massive opportunity cost.”

seawater desalination energy fuel environment renewable solar potable water technology innovation
The plant is able to achieve increased energy efficiency, while reducing the cost of desalination and environmental impact

Backed by the Abu Dhabi government, Masdar and its collaborators aim to alleviate some of these pressures through the use of renewable energy technology that harnesses solar power to produce potable water. The Gulf region already accounts for 40 percent of the world’s desalinated water production, so the introduction of renewable energy into the mix is revolutionary and necessary.

“Growing demand for energy in the desalination sector, when combined with the power sector, means that larger quantities of natural gas and oil have to be redirected from exports and other profitable uses to domestic use,” said Adnan Z. Zamin, director general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The project is an international collaboration with desalination experts from around the globe, including two French firms Sidem/Veolia and Suez Environnement, Spanish firm Abengoa, and American company Trevi Systems. Each firm plays a key role in the four pilot desalination plants. And this is just the beginning.