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Renewable energy desalination is the way forward for GCC states

Sphere, Architecture, Building Neom
Neom's "solar dome" is intended to superheat seawater and precipitate it as fresh water
  • Desalination essential to meet water needs of Gulf states
  • Use of renewable energy for desalination is growing
  • GCC countries’ charges for water among lowest in world

Projects in the Middle East are seeking to increase their use of renewable energy desalination amid criticism of the traditional process as being high-cost and energy-intensive.

The Mena region is expected to add an estimated 20GW of solar capacity and 5-6GW of wind by 2025, and the use of these sources is increasingly coming to the fore in the desalination sector.

“Replacing existing and ageing energy voracious thermal desalination assets to more energy efficient technologies such as reverse osmosis is a trend in the making, such as in the UAE,” Walid Rassi, managing director/project manager at Elements 2H2, a Dubai-based consultancy and member of the Mena Clean Energy Business Council, said.

He adds that technologies that enable mineral recovery from brine are an opportunity to embed a more circular economy, “with the bonus of higher end-value commodities than water”.

Fitch analysts also predict that GCC states will “further diverge from the rest of the region, with more ambitious desalination plants in Saudi Arabia and the UAE that could act as leaders for the future of desalination”.

Last June Saudi Arabia announced it is seeking to construct a solar desalination plant within Neom, its $500 billion futuristic city.

Enowa, the energy, water and hydrogen subsidiary of Neom, signed a deal with Japanese trading company Itochu and Veolia, a global leader in water, waste, and energy management solutions, to develop a desalination plant powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

The new plant is intended to meet the water needs of Neom, with a production capacity of 500,000 cubic metres (m3) per day by its completion in 2025.

The UAE, meanwhile, has developed a number of reverse osmosis plants. These are said to be up to 96 percent more efficient than traditional thermal desalination plants, and can help to reduce carbon emissions by more than 85 percent compared with thermal desalination. 

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority aims to increase its capacity using seawater reverse osmosis to 42 percent of desalination by 2030, compared with 13 percent today. 

High demand for a scarce resource

But Rassi says that this greener capacity growth could be hindered by the “constant drive” from owners and developers for cheaper water prices. 

“This goes against the reality of natural resource scarcity and is unfortunately driving some projects into delays and lower value for money – with supply chains being squeezed – sometimes at the risk of non-compliance with regulations,” he said.

Water charges for end users in the Middle East, for example, are around half what is charged in France and a quarter of those in Denmark, he added.

A recent research report by the World Bank said climate change should be used as an “opportunity to build resilience through the water energy nexus”. 

Issam Abousleiman, World Bank regional director for the GCC, said in the report: “Long term sustainability requires new approaches.

“Currently, water and energy subsidies deepen each sector’s dependence on oil revenues. In a region that is only growing hotter and drier, securing water and energy for nearly 60 million people grows more expensive every day.”

Hundreds of desalination plants already deposit hypersaline waste in shallow coastal zones, and many GCC countries have plans for significant expansion. 

“Left unchecked, by 2050 this effluent will erode species’ integrity and diversity, hurting fisheries, tourism and coastal communities,” Abousleiman said. “Current policies do not adequately respond to these challenges.”

He also highlighted Saudi Arabia’s solar desalination plant plans as a good solution. “Doing so reserves hydrocarbon fuels for export, reduces the cost of energy needed, eases price risks, meets targets and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”

The report noted that the GCC can increase availability and have significant water and energy savings from better metering, adequate pricing and reallocating groundwater on farms. 

It added that another policy that can be taken is restructuring tariffs to match equity with incentives. Despite the scarcity of water, GCC countries charge among the lowest rates for water supply and energy services, resulting in one of the highest per capita water and energy usage rates in the world.

“Subsidies that try to ensure lifeline resource access to the truly needy are instead captured by affluent families,” the World Bank said.

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