Sun Shines On Desalination

BMI View: News that Masdar has launched a renewable energy powered desalination pilot project in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) comes as a further boost for the technology ' s prospects in the GCC region. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar also keen to focus on renewable- powered desalination technology as a means to combat the increasing water insecurity persisting in the region, we believe that the technology could gain some traction in the coming years as the issue of water scarcity rises up the poli tical agenda and conventional desalination plants become progressively more unsustainable .

Recent developments in the GCC region have thrown renewable energy technology, particularly solar-driven, desalination plants into the spotlight.

  • Masdar , a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi G overnment-owned Mubadala Development Company , announced in January 201 3 that it is launching a renewable energy powered desalination pilot plant in the UAE, with the aim of it reaching commercial scale by 2020.

  • In October 2012, Abdul Rahman Al-Ibrahim, governor of Saudi Arabia ' s Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) stated that three new solar-powered desalination plants are at the planning stage in Hagel, Dhuba and Farasan .

  • Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) also announced during 2012 that it is planning to develop a pilot Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) water desalination plant.

Water Scarce...

Water scarcity is no new issue for the Gulf States. Although the region is naturally arid , poor water management, climate change and a rising population are exacerbating the problem. As a result, many states have turned to the process of desalination in order to secure water. T he GCC region accounts for half of the world ' s desalination practices; with Saudi Arabia top of the leader board (over 70% of the country ' s water needs are met by desalinated water) . The situation is similarly grave in the UAE, which has one of the highest per capita levels of residential water consumption in the world - the ma jority of which is desalinated.

The process of desalination - typically Reverse Osmosis (RO) - and the transportation of the seawater to urban areas, is expensive and extremely energy intensive and is currently powered by hydrocarbons, notably oil. However, the long-term sustainability of this process is questionable, both in economic and environmental terms, considering water demand will no doubt increase and the need for oil-powered desalinat ion will also rise accordingly.

...But Solar Abundant

Renewable energy technolog y seems a likely alternative for hydrocarbon-based desalination plants, pa rticularly in the GCC states, who are already taking steps to exploit their considerably high insolation rates in order to produce power. We have long-highlighted the potential for solar power in the Middle East and North Africa region and have been following developments closely over the last two years (see our online service, December 3 2012 , ' Eyes On Solar, October 23 2012, ' The Pursuit For Solar Continues ' , May 22 2012, ' Bahrain Project Reinforces MENA Solar Outlook ' ) .

In fact, SWCC has previously stated that its long-term aim is to convert all of its desalination plants into solar-driven projects, in line with Saudi Arabia's wider target of installing 41GW of solar capacity by 2032. UAE ' s renewable energy targets are also ambitious, aiming to derive 7% of its power needs from renewable sources by 2020. We have factored in significant growth for both countries ' solar sectors across our 10-year forecast period, and expect solar-powered desalination plants to contribute to this.

Solar Set To Surge
Saudi Arabia Solar Capacity and Generation (LHS) and UAE Solar Capacity and Generation (RHS), 2012-2022

Desalination Favoured Over Policy Change

Of course desalination is not the only answer to the increasing water insecurity in the region. According to AQUASTAT (the water division of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization), 78% of total water resources in the Middle East are geared towards agriculture, with 18% used by households and 4% by industry. Therefore, implementing changes in water management across agricultural practices and to import more food would no doubt be the most efficient measure s to tackle the pressing water scarcity issue. That said, we believe that desalination will remain the most favoured avenue of ensuring water security, and that solar powered technology will grow in popularity.

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