Seva Karpauskaite: So What is Masdar Anyway? Let’s Start with Desal!

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Masdar, also known as the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, is a renewable energy company that is owned by the Mubadala Development Company. 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. Today I had a chance to visit two inspiring undertakings that straddle different disciplines and approaches to maximize both economic and environmental benefits; one in the field of clean energy deployment and the other in sustainable urban development. Let me share my experience visiting Masdar’s desalination pilot project.

Desalination Pilot Programme

After an hour of driving down a massive highway towards Dubai and then following a dusty, bumpy desert road, we finally reached Ghantoot. Stepping outside, we were greeted by the area’s salty breeze. We then met Dr. Alexander Ritschel, Senior Manager of Masdar Special Projects, amd Mohammad Abdelqader El Ramahi, Masdar’s Director of Asset Management, along with several of their colleagues. They introduced us to the clean energy desalination pilot programme, which includes four desalination plants that seek to maximize energy efficiency and cost-competitiveness of the desalination technologies and process. In 2013 Masdar selected four commercial partners, namely Abengoa, Suez Environment, Veolia and Trevi Systems; each of which has developed and operates a different plant, focusing on different innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and incorporate clean technology. Less than 4 years later, the plants have already entered the optimization stage. They will operate continuously through 2017, after which the scaling-up process will begin and large-scale plants will be built internationally.

The plants appear to be very small, but I was surprised to learn that their combined daily water production is 1,500 cubic metres, which is enough to satisfy the daily need of 500 homes. They share the target of using less than 3.6 kilowatt hours per cubic metre of water, while the average non-renewable energy desalination plants run at about 5 kilowatt hours per cubic metre. However, even the most efficient plant uses a staggering amount of energy. According to one analysis, the production of a cubic metre of fresh water is equal to the energy needed to operate an air conditioning unit for an hour on a hot day; which is why efficiency enhancement is not enough and the plants’ operators look at the ways to use the most readily available renewable energy to power their operations. One of them already use solar cells to generate the energy needed.

Fresh water scarcity and demand are both growing. If you care for numbers, Trieb and Mullersteinhagen (2008) estimate that by 2050 the desalination will account for 76% of all water needs for the Gulf region for all sectors. According to a report published by the International Water Summit, during the next five years the combined desalination capacity of the region is expected to increase by an astonishing 40%, to more than 25 million cubic metres per day. Energy accounts for 50-75% of the cost of desalination, which means that seawater desalination requires about 10 times more energy than surface fresh water production, and therefore the costs of providing water will sky-rocket if the water production continues to use energy-intensive processes that use fossil fuels (needless to say, this also further feeds the vicious climate change cycle).

It is therefore truly encouraging to see how advanced and successful the pilots are. Water is an essential, non-substitutable and quite frankly, is a ridiculously underpriced asset that we usually take for granted--or at least until it becomes unavailable. A future prospect that is increasingly more menacing, given the mounting effects of climate change that increase the frequency and severity of droughts, and will exacerbate the water crisis worldwide. I will have a chance to learn more about it at the International Water Summit, which is part of the ADSW2017, and will share the key aspects and challenges we face.

Coming up next, a reflection on one of the most futuristic and impressive urban development projects I have ever seen, the Masdar City.


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