x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Water plant to tap power of the sun

A planned solar-powered desalination plant in Saudi Arabia could prove a major step forward in efforts to reduce the industry's environmental impact.

DUBAI // A planned solar-powered desalination plant in Saudi Arabia could prove a major step forward in efforts to reduce the industry's environmental impact. The US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) plant, to be built in Rabigh, on the kingdom's west coast, is expected to use solar power to produce 50 cubic metres of desalinated water per day. The process causes less environmental damage than traditional fossil fuel-powered facilities.

Although the amount of water produced initially will be relatively small, much larger quantities could be produced, said Dr Osvaldo Fumei, the managing director of Isproma Services & Consulting, the Italian company behind the project. Attempts to tap the power of the sun to desalinate water have been made before, but not on a commercial level, said Dr Fumei, speaking on the sidelines of the International Desalination Association World Congress on Desalination and Water Reuse, which runs until Thursday at the Atlantis hotel in Dubai.

"A lot of people talk about it but nobody ever did it," he said. "Right now, we do not have a real [solar-powered] plant that works 24 hours a day in a real commercial environment. "Our breakthrough is that in a few years from now, we will be able to say there are real people drinking water produced from solar desalination," he said. However, Dr Fumei said the major hurdle to overcome with solar-powered plants was cost. They are still "tens of times" more expensive to build than conventional facilities, he said.

The plant will use special parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays, producing electricity as well as powering the desalination process. Dr Fumei said it could take a few years before the technology became cost-effective. Isproma is building the mirrors at its research facility in Riyadh. Once tests were completed they would be transferred to Rabigh, said Dr Fumei, who added that the project also acted as a showcase for the Saudi government.

"At the moment the commitment is to develop something that works and show it is possible, even if it only supplies a few thousand people," said Dr Fumei. "There is a visionary aspect here. "Desalination remains an energy-intensive industry. You must have a lot of energy available," he said. "With this kind of plant, you are fully energy independent." While Saudi Arabia can rely on abundant fossil fuel supplies, small-scale solar-powered desalination plants could be vital to isolated coastal communities.

"In many cases we estimate Saudi Arabia loses around 40 per cent of the water they make," Dr Fumei said. He added that most of that was lost through inefficient transportation methods. vtodorova@thenational.ae