ABU DHABI: For more than four decades, the smoke rising from two chimneys of a water-desalination plant operated by SAWACO was a familiar sight along Jeddah’s Red Sea coast. Sept. 5 marked the end of emissions from the chimneys as the desalination plant ceased operations in line with the Kingdom’s ambition plan to wean itself off its dependence on polluting, fossil fuel-based technologies and to diversify its economy.
The chimneys, which were originally scheduled to stop operating in February 2020, harked back to an era that is being ushered out by Saudi Arabia’s transformation into a global leader in the use and development of sustainable energy.
That moment when the smoke stopped was a reminder of the Kingdom’s determination to adopt a sustainable path for both its water production and the wider energy sector in the interest of future generations.
“Water has always been an essential part of life in Saudi Arabia,” Colin Ward, a researcher at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), told Arab News.
“The desalination plants allowed the Kingdom to expand its water supplies beyond the capacity of its natural sources to support a growing population and economy.
“The removal of the last smokestacks at the Jeddah plant represents an exciting transition for Saudi Arabia.” Chimneys of power or desalination plants release smoke and gases formed during the burning of oil, coal or natural gas.
From the 1970s they became a familiar feature of coastal cities and towns in the cities of the Middle East when desalination plants began to piggyback off thermal power plants by a process known as co-generation.
In many Middle East countries, oil was burned to heat water into steam, which turned a turbine that drove an electrical generator. Simultaneously, the desalination process utilized the extra heat of the turbines to convert seawater into drinking water.
A downside of the technology is that the exhaust from co-generation plants contains gases harmful to the local environment, in addition to carbon dioxide, the rising levels of which are believed to be causing global warming.
“Thermal distillation was a crude solution that relied heavily on cheap and abundant energy, but it was inefficient,” said Ward. “Today, the Kingdom is on the cutting edge of desalination research and development — and is putting these advances into practice.”
Saudi Arabia’s position in the top five countries of the world in terms of water scarcity makes improvements in the way it produces, uses and distributes water imperative. Accordingly, it has drawn up a raft of plans to achieve greater water security, sustainability and efficiency.
The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), the National Water Company (NWC) and the Saudi Water Partnership Company have teamed up to launch six major projects with an estimated total cost of 3.1 billion riyals ($800 million) to build some of the world’s most technologically advanced and energy-efficient desalination plants to serve pilgrims in Makkah and other holy sites. Separately, nine seawater desalination plants are in preparation in Jeddah with a total capacity of 240,000 cubic meters of water per day, according to Abdulrahman bin Abdulmohsen Al-Fadley, Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Environment, Water and Agriculture.
The Jeddah project will incorporate the latest technology to boost production efficiency and cut operating and capital costs, and “will have a significant impact on improving the quality and scope of water services,” Al-Fadley said in a statement earlier this year.
For its part, the SWCC, which operates desalination plants and power stations in Saudi Arabia, said it has achieved a capacity of five million cubic meters per day of desalinated water, making it the world’s largest producer. KAPSARC’s Ward says efforts to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s water sector into a more eco-friendly, and sustainable sector will prove transformational.
“Improvements to technology, changes in primary energy pricing, and growing concerns over pollution have led to the development of cheaper and more efficient methods using membranes such as reverse osmosis,” he told Arab News.
Reverse osmosis, which involves taking seawater and passing it through a fine membrane to produce clean drinking water, is an increasingly popular and more environment-friendly method of desalination. The technology is being used in the Shuaiba Expansion II scheme, which began commercial operations in Makkah in May and has a capacity of 250,000 cubic metres of water daily.
Some experts say Saudi Arabia should rely, above all, on its experience for making decisions on the selection of appropriate desalination technologies for future applications. “Adoption of stand-alone or conventional membrane and thermally driven processes has future implications for the economy and levels of environmental and marine pollution,” Muhammad Wakil Shahzad, a research scientist at the Water Desalination Research Center (WDRC) at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), told Arab News.
“All conventional desalination processes are operating at only 10 to 13 percent of the thermodynamic limit. Sustainable desalination can only be achieved by ‘out of box’ solutions such as hybrid processes and highly efficient membranes applications.”
Ward points out that “research into renewable desalination is under way, with the largest solar-based experiment located in Saudi Arabia.” He says the transformation of the water sector points to a readiness on the part of Saudi companies to embrace a “greener” future.
Saudi Arabia is one of the 195 signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It is leading by example, having launched a number of initiatives in renewable energy and energy efficiency of its own.
In line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy, the Saudi government is planning to develop 30 solar and wind projects over the next nine years as part of a $50 billion program to boost power generation and cut oil consumption. It is planning to increase the contribution of renewables in its total energy mix to 27.3 GW by 2024, from wind as well as solar energy.
On July 8, the Renewable Energy Project Development Office (REPDO) of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources announced the bidding process and the timeline for 12 renewable energy projects, with a total capacity of more than 3 gigawatts (GW). The tenders were part of round two of the Kingdom’s National Renewable Energy Program (NREP). Following through on the announcement, on Aug. 2 REPDO invited bids for six solar photovoltaic projects with a total capacity of 1.47 GW.
For its part, the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, recently announced it wants to locate an electric vehicle industry in the Kingdom, following an agreement to invest more than $1 billion in a US-based electric-vehicle manufacturer. A number of projects are also in the works under the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP).
Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, has already outlined its ambition to be part of the solution to tackle climate change. Among its decarbonisation policies are reduction of emissions, creation of natural “sinks” that absorb carbon emissions, and progress towards the goal of “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” - an initiative introduced by the World Bank to eliminate routine flaring of gas - no later than 2030.
Against this backdrop, the September 5 shutdown of the chimneys of SAWACO’s desalination plant in Jeddah signified in a small way Saudi Arabia’s ongoing transition to an era of sustainable development and economic diversification.