INNOVATION IN WATER PRODUCTION PROCESSES

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | GREEN ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Abdullah Al Alshaikh, CEO of Advanced Water Technology Company (AWT), on Solar Seawater Reverse Osmosis, the build-operate-own model, and desalinated water plants.

How is the Al Khafji Solar Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) project proceeding?

Al Khafji started commissioning about three months ago and we have started producing. We have the capability to produce the whole quantity of 60,000 m3/day. We are operating at almost half our capacity now. There has been a slight change in the policy since we started this project. Previously, we thought we could produce all the power within the same zone, adjacent to the plant. However, we found out it would be more economical and viable to have about 10-15MW of PV power sourced nearby, and the remaining power from elsewhere using the grid system that is already there. But, the idea is that whatever power we need to produce water from this plant will be produced by a renewable method, namely solar. This is why we call it a zero-carbon emission plant.

How has AWT's role developed in this project from engineering and design to project management to Developer?

The Al Khafji project has gone through several stages for us. In the beginning, AWT was mostly doing project management. About a year later, in mid-2016, we were faced with some difficulties with the EPC contractor, so we stepped in and did all the work ourselves. This means we now have good hands-on experience of how to build a plant like this. We are proud that this plant implements the latest technology in terms of energy consumption. The energy consumption is 3.8KW per hour to produce one cubic meter of desalinated water. That rate is one of the lowest in the world. Most plants are above 4KW per hour to produce 1m3 of desalinated water. This illustrates how efficient our plant is and we use many techniques to achieve this result. Also, we are applying intermittent dosing techniques with the chemicals that results in drastically reduced consumption compared to conventional chemical treatment techniques.

How has innovation been taking place under AWT's R&D and technology transfer partnerships with global leaders to create the low emission and low energy consumption solutions you have created here?

The starting point is under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Initiative for Desalination Powered by Renewable Energy, in this case using solar energy. This initiative was started about five years ago and there are four stages involved in it. The first was building the Al Khafji plant, which had an initial intended capacity of 30,000m3/day of desalinated water that was doubled to a capacity of 60,000m3/day when we realized the level of demand. Given the success of this project there may be a chance to go on to stage two where we build a much bigger plant on the Red Sea of 300,000m3/day. Then we can replicate the 300,000m3/day plant in a different location as a stage three. Further, if we can drastically drive down the price of water production through the use of renewable energy we may be able to think about applying this to agriculture, as it would become economically feasible. This would be stage four. Currently we are talking about an operational price below SAR2.00 (USD0.50) per cubic meter of water produced, which is currently low for this size of plant. But we see that through the use of renewable energy and advanced desalination technology it will be possible to keep pushing down the price.

How does AWT assess water management and wastewater treatment opportunities, and what are your strategies going forward?

A decision was made by the government two years ago to make the private sector more involved in producing water and electricity and now we are seeing the results of this. All the big plans that have recently been announced by the government will use the build-operate-own (BOO) model. This means having independent producers with the government guaranteeing to buy the water. For the government this will remove the big burden that comes with financing such a huge project. The government will pay for the water, but not the construction. Of course the developer will also gain something over a long period, as these concessions will typically be for up to 25 years. This model is practical and used worldwide.

Does AWT have ambitions to be an operator or equity owner of some desalination plants?

We have a lot of ambitious ideas and projects for the near future. We have already joined a consortium as a developer with three big players and are bidding for a 600,000m3/day desalination plant that is planned. Furthermore, we are looking at another two projects, so the opportunities are huge now that we have proven our ability to manage and develop such a plant. AWT's role in the future will continue as a developer and equity owner, operator and technology provider, not as an EPC contractor, carving out a niche in sustainability. We are also looking at using solar to go into downstream. We are trying to bid for some downstream projects for sewage treatment plants that have been announced by WEC (Water & Electricity Co.). We would be involved both as developer and operator.

Aside from solar-power, what other technological innovations have you applied to operate in a sustainable way?

State-of-the-art technology today can be labeled green because of the focus on energy efficient components in new plants that are at such a state of advancement compared to even five years ago. The definitions of conventional and green are changing. Green is embedded in current state-of-the-art “conventional plants.” It does not necessarily have to be solar powered. Green efficiencies run through the whole process, for example with the chemical dosing and energy recovery systems. In order to be truly sustainable in water supply, we have to utilize a source that is sustainable in of itself, like seawater as opposed to ground water. Secondly, we have to use something that does not pollute the environment, either through energy supply, the use of chemicals, or the discharge. Thirdly, we have to continue to innovate in the processes of water production. The process of desalination is not that old. It only started at a scalable level about 40 years ago and at that time the cost was extremely high, but even so, desalination was a must for a region like the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Now, as the cost has fallen, desalination is used in many places around the world. The world's rising water demand is really forcing us to accelerate innovation in desalination and to develop sustainable desalination techniques, and AWT intends to be in the forefront of this movement.