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Ground zero in the energy-water nexus

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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)

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Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure