At the 2011 World Future Energy Summit, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince famously declared that “water is more important than oil.” That sentiment is taking on more meaning with water desalination comprising a large component of energy use.
Desalination accounts for the vast majority of the UAE’s drinking water. It’s an expensive and carbon heavy processs powered primarily by natural gas. As I discussed yesterday, the UAE has paradoxically become a net-importer of natural gas with demand for energy continuing to rise. This, combined with the country’s 2020 goal to meet 7 percent of energy needs from renewable sources, makes viable desalination without fossil fuels something of a technological and economic holy grail.
Nonetheless, that is exactly what Masdar has set out to accomplish by 2020. The company, with as-yet-unamed partners, has launched a pilot project to build the world’s first large scale, commercially viable, desalination plant powered completely by renewable energy. Exactly what “large scale” means isn’t entirely defined, nor is the exact mix of solar, wind or other sources of renewable energy. However, the commercially viable aspect of the project is clear, and significant.
International Desalination Association president Dr. Corrado Sommariva summed it up during this morning’s press conference as “bridging the gap between research and development and commercialization.” Sommariva noted that although other renewably powered desalination plants exist, none have been set up with practical commercialization in mind.
Here’s how it will work:
Masdar will launch 3 different pilot projects around Abu Dhabi over the next 3 years – each testing somewhat different technologies, geographies and partners. Each project will be funded 50 percent by Masdar and 50 percent by partners which will be chosen from an existing short-list of about 50 potential companies. By 2016 each project should be well into planning and construction with launch a launch date of 2020 – the same year that the country’s 7 percent renewable energy goal comes into effect.
Like Masdar’s many other projects, much is likely to be learned while planning and partnerships evolve. We’ll be watching!
Ed Note: Travel expenses for the author were provided by Masdar.