By Chris Nelder
Posting in Cities
Nowhere is the challenge of the energy-water nexus so acute as in the Middle East. Here's what Abu Dhabi plans to do about it.
The oil and gas producing countries of the Middle East may be sitting pretty in fossil fuels, but they have an urgent problem with their water supply.
That was the focus of the International Water Summit held in conjunction with the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago, which I attended at the invitation and on the dime of Masdar. The slogan of the conference was "Bringing the water-energy nexus to life," a topic I last covered in August.
"The availability of potable water is one of the most pressing issues in the world, particularly in the Gulf region where water production is a costly and energy-intensive process," explained Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, managing director and CEO of Masdar City.
The numbers (provided by ADWEC, aka Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company) are frightening.
Abu Dhabi's water demand has more than doubled over the past 10 years as tall gleaming glass buildings leapt out of the sand across the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Consumption is rising even faster than electricity demand, which is growing at an average annual growth rate of 9.5 percent.
All of the water in the emirate's distribution system -- the water used for human consumption -- is produced by nine large desalination plants, to the tune of 634 million Imperial gallons a day in 2011. By 2016, just three years from now, demand is expected to increase another 45 percent, to 999 million Imperial gallons a day.
Abu Dhabi water demand forecast. Source: ADWEC
Virtually all desalination activities are currently powered by natural gas-fired cogeneration plants burning an average of 1.73 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of gas. About half of that power generation is used for desalination. Therefore, about 0.86 Bcf/d of gas went to water desalination in 2011, which likely rose to 1 Bcf/d in 2012 (data for 2012 is not yet available).
Nationally, the UAE imports more gas than it produces. As I detailed in my last column, the nation produced around 5 Bcf in 2010, but consumed 5.86 Bcf. In short, it imports almost exactly the same amount of gas as Abu Dhabi uses for water desalination. At current European gas import prices, that would be more than $12 million a day, or $4.4 billion a year, in sacrificed revenue.
Exactly where UAE gets its gas imports, or what it pays for them, is not public information, but it's clearly a major expense. The emirate of Abu Dhabi has a slightly better gas balance, with a net surplus of 0.11 Bcf/d in 2010, according to the Statistics Centre of Abu Dhabi.
Water they thinking?
Desalination is the only way to produce more water in these arid countries. To put the word "arid" in perspective, Abu Dhabi receives an average of just 82 millimeters (mm) of rainfall per year -- less than one-quarter the rainfall recorded in the state of Arizona.
Worse, the groundwater that provided around 80 percent of its water supply 10 years ago is drying up, and becoming increasingly saline. Water tables are dropping quickly, and according to a 2005 study, the paltry rainfall is only able to manage a 4 percent recharge rate to those aquifers.
In other words, Abu Dhabi consumes about 26 times as much water as it gets in rainfall.
Many groundwater wells are expected to become useless in 30 years. "Desalination has so far proved the answer, but in 50 years' time we will have no usable groundwater left," said H.E. Razan Al Mubarak, Secretary-General of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, the environmental regulatory authority.
Caught between the rapidly rising cost of natural gas-powered desalination and exploding water demand, Abu Dhabi is looking to its massive solar resource and other renewables to provide the water of the future. "We are ready to aggressively pursue desalination powered by renewable energy," Dr. Sultan al-Jaber said at a press conference.
Three pilot projects will be built over the next three years in Abu Dhabi, of which Masdar will fund half the cost, with the other half supplied by its technology partners. Those pilots will be combined and expanded with the objective of breaking ground on a commercial scale project by 2016. The hope is to have the world's first large-scale, commercially viable desalination plant powered by renewables operating by 2020. More than 48 companies are already on "the short list" for consideration as technology partners.
Other Middle Eastern oil and gas producers are considering similar options.
UAE's next door neighbor Qatar has the world's third-largest gas reserves and is the single largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. But like Abu Dhabi, it is looking to renewables as a means of securing its water supply.
Speaking on a panel, H.E. Fahad bin Mohammed Al Attiya, the chairman of the Qatar National Food Program, offered a stark assessment: "We import 90 percent of our food, and 100 percent of our water is desalinated. We still have a sharp growth trajectory. We have an enormous solar resource. We look at solar to solve our water and food security issues. ... We have no water reserve to speak of -- two to four days at most. This is unacceptable."
He forecast, hopefully, that most of Qatar's water would be produced with renewable energy in 10 years' time.
Saudi Arabia will need to make similar moves, since it burns more than 1 million barrels a day of crude oil just to desalinate water. Aside from being an enormous waste of an incredibly versatile and energy-dense resource, that's a major sacrifice of income. If all of that oil were sold at current Brent benchmark prices (it wouldn't be, but just as a point of reference), that's $115 million a day in lost revenue, just to make fresh water.
International Energy Agency director Maria van der Hoeven echoed that point when I interviewed her at the conference. "If they could free those amount of fossils they use just for desalination, if they could free those amount of fossils by using solar, it could be huge," she said, then reinforced how essential water is to oil production. "And then… they use it and then it's gone. Because you need the water again for oil production. You need it. Fifteen to 20 percent of global oil use is there, and once it's consumed it's not going to be there anymore."
Conservation is key
With such enormous water demands and energy costs, it's clear that desalination alone -- especially if it's powered entirely by relatively expensive renewables -- can't solve the Middle East's problem. Conservation must play a key role.
Per capita water consumption of apartment dwellers in Abu Dhabi is in line with U.N. benchmark figures, at around 180 to 190 liters per day. But factored across the entire emirate, Abu Dhabi's per capita consumption is one of the highest in the world, at roughly 330 liters per day for water consumed via the distribution system, and a massive 550 liters per day for all uses, including groundwater sources.
Sustainable? Not even close.
Water used to irrigate landscaping is already on the outs: Subsidies to irrigate forests are being eliminated, and concrete is gradually replacing plants and grass. Water-saving devices are now required in all new buildings (though you wouldn't know it from the massive shower head in my hotel!), and parks and gardens are aiming to slash their water consumption in the coming years.
The water demands of food production are also undergoing close scrutiny, with specific crops being selected while others are shunned. Hydroponic food production is also being tried, to avoid the evaporation losses of watering open soil.
Ultimately though, water consumption will require attitudinal changes and a rejiggering of the copious subsidies allotted to citizens.
Emiratee nationals receive water at zero cost, and treat it accordingly -- washing down their cars on a daily basis (which explains why I never saw a dirty car in that decidedly dusty environment), hosing down outside spaces, maintaining lush gardens, and so on. Indeed, energy in general is too cheap in Abu Dhabi at about $1.80 for a gallon of gasoline and $0.04/kWh for grid power (the U.S. average price for grid power is around $0.12/kWh).
Lifting subsidies must be done carefully, so as not to overburden the huge population of poor laborers and potentially spark another chapter in the so-called Arab Spring.
But those changes are happening, even in this part of the world that loves its gas hogs more than any other. Bader Al Lamki, the Director of Clean Energy at Masdar, explained to me how his electricity bill details the amount he is charged along with the amount subsidized by the government. That has made him more conscious of his consumption.
"Why should the government pay all this expense of mine, mishandling of my consumption of electricity, water, oil and gas?" he asked rhetorically. "Dubai also started to do a little bit of relief of the subsidy that has been in, and the price of electricity has gone up. So people are aware; these issues are not taboo. But the change process doesn't happen overnight."
Even H.H. Lieutenant General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (who is always referred to that way - yes, all 26 words) has solar panels on his palace and his offices, noted Al Lamki, along with a smart meter so he can monitor his consumption. He is a vigorous proponent of the emirate's efforts in conservation and energy transition. And what the immensely popular Sheikh Mohammed does is eagerly adopted by his subjects; if he shows up in public with a certain kind of sunglasses one day, everybody rushes out to buy the same sunglasses the next.
And so, a sense of conservation is gradually coming to this part of the world, even as blessed as it is with energy resources both renewable and non-renewable. Because for Abu Dhabi, like its neighbors, this is a critical strategic choice that must be made if the emirate wants to survive and maintain a decent standard of living 50 years from now, when its fossil fuel resources are sharply depleted and its groundwater is gone.
In time, after a long process of cultural change, even the 16 percent of the UAE's crude oil production that is consumed internally -- nearly half a million barrels per day -- might be reduced as more electric vehicles, such as the ones being used in Masdar City, take to the roads. It might not take much more than Sheikh Mohammed letting his people see him rolling around downtown in a snazzy, but dusty, EV.
Photo: The late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, at a water project (credit: Shawati' 21)
Feb 5, 2013
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We are working with several architectures that are energy source agnostic. Wind, Solar CST, Gas etc., that can reduce the fuel needed for desalination by 60% or more. My company Altresco, Texas Tech University, and associated companies have created a semi proprietary method of integrating known technologies to achieve the highest possible capacity factor, continuous desalination for the lowest long term levelized cost of desalinated water available today. By a decent margin. Our barrier has been that because our system is innovative and crosses over several core competencies, it does not fit it any of the boxes people try to fit it in. It also exceeds the training of the high expertise extremely well qualified and brilliant minds in most camps today. The specificity of their learning has made it much harder to see the whole landscape. My position is that they are all right, if we can work together. The reason I used the phrase semi proprietary, is because, once it's understood by someone more interested in freshwater than selling machinery, it is like finding your sunglasses on top of your head after hours of looking. I am in discussions with several investment groups and will select two that demonstrate that their primary interest is fresh water at affordable prices, rather than "How much pain will they endure." I'm just a common man, but my life of solving problems considered impossible has taken me through a very large amount of learning. William Ross Williams
One of the reasons the Saudis, UAEs... are moving fast to install nuclear and solar is that they know their oil can only give them so much $ from the rest of us into the futur3e, while solar & nuclear can satisfy energy, water and carbon-neutral fuel needs forever. Who are the fools? ;] .
Chris, good article, but including some of the cost/gallon of water desalinated either in dollars of energy units as well the specific desalination technologies would have made the article far more useful.
...than just water. Their mere existence at the scale that they exist today is very, very expensive. The long-term solutions to their problems are even more expensive. The only reason that these populations get to exist at anything beyond a 7th-century standard of living, much less their their current scale is due to the income provided by world-wide oil consumption. What is going to happen when the rest of the world finally frees itself from the "addiction to oil"? What are these people going to do then?
Mr. Nelder mentioned that currently desalination is done via cogeneration from natural gas electric plants. What's the desalination process? Do they evaporate the water using waste heat or do they use the power for osmosis or both? When they switch to renewables, is the plan to use osmosis instead of evaporation? One nice thing about using renewables to power osmosis is that nightfall would be less of a problem with solar. Osmosis can be turned on and off quickly with little loss, and of course extra fresh water produced during the day can be stored for use during the night. This means the usual problem with renewables and electric storage goes away. On the downside, the cost of keeping desalination plants idle during the night might be too expensive. What are the prospects for wind power in Abu Dhabi?
For a start, all of the grey water from those high rises could be used for irrigation, saving the need to treat it and the potable water typically used for irrigation.
The highest consumptive use of fresh water is wet cooling at conventional thermal power plants (coal and nuclear) -- more than lawns in the desert and any other consumptive uses where consumer conservation might make a difference, This elephant in the room somehow gets ignored when the water-energy nexus gets discussed.
Perhaps the choice is bigger - Solar/Nuclear generated electricity to drive mass desalination - De-population to sustainable levels - A global push back on the Sahara, aspiring to re-forest and re-agriculture the land, changing the climate positively for the entire world. One for Bill Gates to seed capital it with $10bn. it might even occupy near destitute people otherwise courted by Radical Moslem nutters into new forms of sustainable living, supported by good governance.
They must make large water reservoirs like lakes, and plant so many plant when they can. Create a place where good people want to visit, maybe then their water problems start solving. But don't forget the culture........Zero zero is good stuff....
It depends if they boil the sea water down to nothing. If they only boil away a fraction of it, the salt is still present in solution in a concentrated form. It can be sent back to the ocean with little effect as long as you spread it over a wide enough area. If reverse osmosis is used, it never desalinates all the water, just a small amount of it. The leftover water has a slightly higher concentration of salt which again can be returned to the ocean as long as you spread it out over a wide enough area to prevent a local concentration of salt.
Cost data is generally hard to come by in this part of the world, being closely held as state secrets. Perhaps I'll look into the specific desalination technologies they're using in a future article.
It all depends on how fast things happen. If it's quickly they'll just die. If it happens over and extended time their will be mass migrations of non-sustainable populations world wide to areas with more resources. Translated, that means they're coming for the water - and the food that you think of as "yours." The future is described by a thirst and a hunger that this planet has never known - unless we get back to sustainable population levels before we reach catastrophic tipping points - if we haven't already.
Water consumption for power generation is indeed very high at wet-cooled plants, as I detailed at length in my previous article on the energy-water nexus. Something I meant to mention but never got around to here in this article is that the 100 MW Shams 1 CSP plant in Abu Dhabi is dry-cooled, using the biggest radiator I've ever seen. It's quite a marvel to see.
THe area is a desert for a reason. You can't just make a lake and expect it to stay there with no way to replenish it. And with no water there will be few animals.
Although, I'd doubt they'd just "die". More likely, it would be the kickoff to a new world war. They aren't going to go quietly. This is another reason why "managed" solutions to energy are more-than-likely a big mistake. The carbon regulation crowd would love it if we could just turn it off overnight. That would be disastrous not only for the world's consumers, but even more so than these producing countries that produce little else. It will take decades, if not a century to adjust in a stable manner.
Think further, water attracts water.. If you plant enough life around..... Maybe sealevel must rise a mile then you understand.
Over the long term, as oil becomes more scarce and harder to harvest, the price for it will slowly increase. On the other side, alternatives will slowly improve and become economically viable on their own. The marketplace will adjust on its own, just as it did when petroleum and electricity replaced whale oil. Imposed solutions such as carbon taxes and FITs are politically imposed creatures, designed to pick winners and losers, and are intended to act in shorter terms, and always with unintended consequences that are rarely in sync with what most would call "societal" or "sustainable" goals. Want an example? Ethanol, which [i]we still continue to mandate and subsidize[/i] long after the policy has been fully discredited on environmental, economic, and even political grounds.
John, No thinking member of the "carbon regulation crowd" imagines that could happen, so why the bullet aimed at us? Markets are near instant short term solutions that can't handle long term problems without awful overshoot from instant scarcity when the resources run out or go gaga expensive. Carbon taxes coupled with FITs can make markets work for longer term societal goals and sustainable solutions when we talk energy..
Abu Dhabi lies in the middle of a vast stretch of salt flats that are barely above the level of the Persian Gulf. Any sea level rise will flood the entire city. Conversely, pumping out ground water will cause land subsidence, also flooding the city. together, they'll create a new Netherlands of the Desert. Abu Dhabi's future requires three things; draconian population control, draconian water conservation, and development of energy efficient solar distillation factories.
In arid India, the government build canals to bring water to various settlements, including an artificial lake. So someone did try. For a number of these canals, the water evaporated before it arrived at its destination. In Abu Dubai, the situation is even worse. The key, if you know anything about permaculture, is not the water, but the plants. If you can grow plants that will create a microclime that traps water, in effect, an artificial oasis, then you could keep water on the surface. However, In Abu Dubai, that's still incredibly difficult.