Experts look for ways to drive desalination through renewable energy

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2012 -A conference of water experts meeting in New Mexico last month say renewable energy will be key to developing and improving desalination water projects throughout the United States. The conference brought desalination experts from around the world together in Alamogordo to discuss ways to advance desalination projects, which remove salt and other materials from seawater, brackish water, river water and wastewater to make potable water or water that is low in total dissolved solids.

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In 2008, according to Ali Al-Karaghouli, a principal research engineer dealing with renewable energy applications and science and technology partnerships at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the total installed capacity of desalination plants was more than 1.6 billion gallons per day. He says seawater desalination accounts for 67% of production, followed by brackish water at 19%, river water at 8%, and wastewater at 6%.

However, the experts agree, the process requires a large amount of energy and can contribute significantly to carbon emissions, adding urgency to the conference theme of seeking ways to expand technology to use renewable energy in the process.

Al-Karaghouli's research shows the use of desalination technologies driven by renewable energy resources is a viable way to produce fresh water in many locations today. As the technologies continue to improve - and as fresh water and cheap conventional sources of energy become scarcer ‑ using renewable energy technology in desalination will become even more attractive.

“The selection of the appropriate renewable energy desalination technology depends on a number of factors,” the researcher says, “including plant size, feed-water salinity, remoteness, availability of grid electricity, technical infrastructure, and the type and potential of the local renewable energy resources.”

Because desalination technology has been in continuous development over recent decades, it is now possible to include salt water as part of the production of fresh water, Al-Karaghouli says. However, the current cost of desalinated water is still high because of its extensive use of energy.

Experts representing Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australia presented some of their successful projects at the conference, which was coordinated by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University and the Bureau of Reclamation. The presentations demonstrated why Europe and Asia are currently considered the global leaders in this technology.

Dr. Bekele Debele, of the Middle East and North Africa Region Worldbank, said desalination is being looked at as an emerging solution to the region's growing water gap. “Between 1950 and 2000 per-capita renewable water resources declined by more than 75%,” he said.  Saudi Arabia, the world's leader in desalination, is looking to convert all of its seawater desalination plants to renewable energy by 2019, Debele said.

Testing of a solar powered desalination project will begin soon at the bureau's Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo. Louisiana-based Suns River Inc. is conducting the testing.


Original story printed in January 18, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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