Next Big Thing: Renewable Water Desalination
Originally published on CleanTechnica
by Zachary Shahan
One fun thing about running CleanTechnica for the past 7 years or so has been watching as new innovations and industries pop up, and then navigating the initial players in these nascent markets and trying to find out who is leading and where the market is going.
Wind is now a mature market that offers the cheapest electricity in the power generation industry. Solar arrived right behind it and might also be labeled as mature now. Electric vehicles and batteries are going through puberty, nearing mass-market maturity. Autonomous vehicles, which look set to bring us electric robotaxis, are just budding. What’s next?
One topic that we probably haven’t covered enough is water. In particular, it seems that desalination is a bubbling market that it’s time to keep a closer eye on.
Global warming and climate change are set to lessen our supply of clean water. Population growth will increase demand for it. Desalination will be an important solution to solving this challenge, and also bringing clean water to many people who don’t even have it yet.
Naturally, the factor that has held desalination back from much greater deployment up till now is cost — there’s plenty of need for clean water, but desalination hasn’t been cheap. However, there have been strong moves to drop the cost of desalination, apparently much more than I realized up till this week.
One interesting thing I learned on a Masdar tour this week was that approximately 50% of the cost of desalination is from energy use. So, one great way to cut costs is by cutting energy use. Another great way is to just use cheaper energy. Five pilot projects in the UAE are trying to do both, using electricity from cheap solar power as well as cutting costs in the actual desalination process.
Four of the five projects are doing so through innovations in conventional membrane-based desalination. Three large companies — Abengoa, Veolia, and Suez — are managing projects and startup Mascara is managing one.
The other desalination pilot project is by California-based startup Trevi, which is using osmosis (or “forward osmosis”) to efficiently desalinate seawater. I will dive into the Trevi technology in a coming article. Stay tuned.
One thing I love about Masdar, which hosted this trip, is that it definitely seems to have long-term vision and wants to be a leader in energy and technology in 40 years, when oil & gas is a much, much smaller industry. This long-term vision is so absent in Western politics and corporations that it is refreshing to be exposed to it once a year when visiting Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week on behalf of Masdar. As Seva Karpauskaite noted in a blog post after the tour, “Masdar was created in part to advance the development and deployment of innovative clean technologies. To do so, the enterprise invests, incubates and establishes commercially viable clean tech initiatives.”
Renewable energy is a big part of this, but, now, so is water desalination. The desalination projects are specifically about integrating innovative research with industry in order to hasten the development of commercially viable, cost-cutting desalination technologies. I think we’ll see much more news on this transition in the coming years and decades. Decades? Again, yes, it is about have long-term vision and leadership, which I have come to expect from Masdar, and only wish I could expect from the average company or country.
All photos by Zachary Shahan | CleanTechnica