A Race Against Time

Solar Desalination

Saudi Arabia has announced the construction of the world's first solar-powered desalination plant. This pioneering project reinforces the country's position as the world's largest producer of desalinated water, but investments are needed to cope with the high level of agricultural water consumption.

There has been much talk about Saudi Arabia facing potential problems with a highly valued natural resource that is not oil; studies suggest that the desert kingdom may run out of groundwater within a few decades. One water expert at King Faisal University believes that it may be even sooner, and has suggested water will disappear from Saudi’s soil in just 13 years.

The situation requires urgent action, as Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest average rates of water consumption: nearly 1,600 liters per capita per day. The country’s arid climate and its rapidly growing population—on track to reach 39 million by 2030—do not make circumstances reassuring.
A report issued by the World Bank on global water scarcity revealed that GCC countries have the largest gap between renewable water supply and demand.

In order to stop this trend and curb the skyrocketing demand, the Ministry of Finance adjusted subsidized prices for water in December 2015, and the Minister of Electricity and Water is running water-saving awareness campaigns in a bid to educate citizens about sustainable water use. The most ambitious aspect of the government’s strategy is the state-run Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), which plans to invest $80 billion over the next 10 years to meet the country’s surging demand. SWCC aims to increase its daily production of desalinated water from the current 3.6 million cubic meters up to 8.5 million by the end of 2025. The Kingdom also plans to have all desalination plants powered by solar by 2020.

The Al Khafji desalination plant is a promising start, set to be the world’s first large-scale solar-powered desalination plant. At an estimated cost of $130 million, the desalination plant is currently being built in Al Khafji City, near the Kuwait border, and is expected to open in early 2017. The solar desalination plant will cover a 250m x 700m area and will supply 60,000 cubic meters of desalinated seawater per day to the city and to the northeastern region. An ultra-high concentrator solar plant with an installed capacity of 15MW will provide energy to both the desalination plant and the national grid. Featuring polycrystalline PV solar cells designed by KACST, this medium-voltage solar facility will allow low operational costs while curbing pollutant gas emissions. The recently formed water solutions company, Advanced Water Technology (AWT), is the developer and will be the operator of the desalination facility.

There are over 7,500 desalination plants worldwide, and about 60% of them are located in the Middle East. Though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, these efforts may prove only to be just enough to cope with the rising human and industrial water consumption, but not sufficient to cover the demand from agriculture, which today accounts for 95% of the nation’s water consumption.

In the late 1970s, Saudi landowners received permission to pump from aquifers in order to irrigate fields in the desert, a measure that eventually led Saudi Arabia to become one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat. By the 1990s, farmers were pumping approximately 5 trillion gallons a year.
Today, this practice is no longer sustainable unless major adjustments are made. A comprehensive, innovation-driven water-management solution is necessary to truly achieve sustainability in the country, and for this huge investments are needed. As Dr. Abdullah Al-AlShaikh, CEO of AWT told TBY, “Foreign investors have a whole world of opportunities available to them in this field.”

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