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Global Desalination Challenge Aims For 'Big Outcome That Changes the World'

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment

General Electric (GE) has partnered with oil giant Saudi Aramco to launch a global search for low cost, high efficiency innovations in the field of water desalination -- with the ultimate goal of tapping the seven seas to supplement the world's increasingly stressed freshwater resources. Along the way, the two corporate behemoths just might end up tipping the global energy balance more steeply, and more quickly, in favor of renewable energy sources.

The global desalination innovation challenge involves a soup-to-nuts approach in which all aspects of desalination are open to improvement, including carbon emissions related to the vast amount of energy required by typical desalination processes.

Two mature companies poised for a sea change

If you haven't been keeping up with the latest news out of Saudi Aramco, the tilt toward renewable energy for powering desalination might seem a bit out of character for a petroleum-centric business model. However, Saudi Aramco has been eyeing its home country's vast solar potential, and it has been transitioning into a more diversified energy generation mix with a growing number of innovative solar energy projects.

GE has a bit of a head start, as a company with 130 years of history behind it, and it has long demonstrated the agility to ride historic global trends into value-creating opportunity.

GE's early solar ventures date back to the space race and the 1970s oil crisis. The company also provided a dramatic example of its flexibility back in 2002, when it jumpstarted its wind power efforts by purchasing wind farm assets from Enron (yes, that Enron).

Just a few years later, in 2005, GE launched its ecomagination initiative with the aim of focusing the company on a strategy of developing “innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth.”

In the context of the latest Ceres sustainability progress report, the desalination challenge issued by Saudi Aramco and GE demonstrates a collaborative approach toward innovation that leads to global solutions to climate change, water resource management and other critical issues.

The global desalination innovation challenge

GE and Saudi Aramco announced the new desalination challenge last month, with a prize of $200,000 split among four winners, along with future investment and commercialization possibilities.

According to the joint announcement, desalination is emerging as a critical issue in the water-energy nexus:

Current desalination techniques are typically very energy intensive: energy consumption can account for up to 70 percent of the desalination costs. The global production of desalinated water uses approximately 75.2 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to power nearly 7 million homes.

Specifically, the two companies are looking for new solutions that can be applied globally. The areas of focus are cleaner energy sources, the use of advanced materials and improved integration of processes.

That second category could include processes within the desalination operation itself, and it could also encompass new combinations of desalination with other systems (Qatar's Sahara Forest Project demonstrates some of those possibilities).

Meet the voice of ecomagination

Last week, TriplePundit had the opportunity to catch up on the desalination challenge with Deb Frodl, the global executive director of GE ecomagination.

Frodl emphasized that desalination has become a major part of the ecomagination mission, as underscored by the company's partnership with Saudi Aramco.

As this is the fifth challenge issued under the ecomagination umbrella, Frodl expects a high level of participation and high returns. She anticipates that the challenge will "drive a big outcome that changes the world."

Take a look at the wrenching droughts in California, Australia and elsewhere, and you can see how a world-changing approach to global water resources is desperately needed.

Frodl also outlined the overall success of the ecomagination initiative overall. By reaching outside of the company to collaborate with the world's leading innovators, GE has leveraged $12 billion in R&D investment to generate $160 billion in new revenue.

In addition to the new revenue, GE has also applied the innovative approach to its internal operations to outdo its goals for emissions reduction and water resource management.

Since 2004, the company has expanded its operations while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent and reducing freshwater use by 47 percent, while saving about $300 million in energy and water costs.

If you want to get your desalination innovation entry into the new challenge, visit ecomagination at ninesights.com and meet the deadline of July 16. Winners will be announced in November.

Image credit: Salt by Tim Sackton

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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