Green Economy

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Renewable water treatment

With few fresh water resources, Saudi Arabia is developing desalination plants powered by renewable energy to sustainably serve its growing urban population.

Around the world, urban populations are growing rapidly with 66% of people expected to live in city areas by 2050, according to the UN. Yet in Saudi Arabia, this figure will be dramatically higher, with projections indicating 90% of the nation’s population will be based in urban centers within 30 years.

The concentration of urban populations requires an equal concentration of resources to enable daily life and business operations, including water and energy, and the infrastructure to deliver both reliably. While Saudi Arabia is home to one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, the nation has severely limited water resources and has been dependent on costly, energy-intensive desalination plants, which convert salt water to fresh water.

In GCC countries, about 50% of primary energy is currently consumed by desalination plants. As urban populations grow, future projections estimate desalination capacities will increase fivefold, prompting governments in the region to find sustainable solutions to keep up with rising demand for fresh water that keeps their economies churning.

In this context, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has prioritized the production of fresh water through renewable energy sources to create a more environmentally friendly system and reduce fossil fuel dependency on meeting daily fresh water needs. State officials in the Kingdom are now working with local and international engineers to develop water management and treatment facilities that will reduce energy waste and utilize closed loop systems to recycle scarce water resources.

Renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic solar panels, solar thermal technology, wind turbines, and geothermal energy collected from the Earth’s heat are now being explored to power water systems that not only produce clean drinking water, but also power municipal sewage treatment facilities.

“We expect USD1.7 million to be saved per year with renewables in sewage treatment plants,” said Khaled bin Zwaid Al-Quershi, CEO of the Saudi Water and Electricity Co. “Renewables offer attractive features because you avoid volatile fuel prices, and it is more stable compared to different energy supplies. These are areas we need to focus on.”

The plan not only reduces the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels, but also addresses critical water scarcity issues in the MENA region, where nearly half the population lives under conditions of “water stress,” consuming more water than local sources can supply. Basing critical infrastructure on renewable energy would also advance the government’s plan to upgrade the role of green technology in its new and existing urban areas. Desalination plants worldwide emit an estimated 76 million tons of CO2 per year, and the figure will only rise if current systems are not upgraded.

Although such technologies are still in the early stages of development, the co-location of desalination plants and renewable energy plants is being proposed in the nation’s largest urban centers. It could play a key role in the proposed city of NEOM, a state-of-the-art tourism and financial center set to be built from scratch on the Red Sea coast.

In addition, state officials are working with the private sector to build sewage treatment plants powered by renewable energy in the cities of Taif, Jubail, and Yanbu. Current plans aim to generate 1.45 million cbm of water through zero-emission systems that also employ closed cycle technology to reduce the evaporation and loss of fresh water supplies.

“We’re helping to create a low-carbon future in clean water production,” said Leon Awerbuch, president of US-based Leading Edge Technologies, which is working with Saudi officials to integrate renewable energy and desalination plants in the country. “A transformation in the energy and water sectors has begun, and fossil fuel domination will fade for desalination.”