Tackling Water Desalination Challenges on a Global Scale

Vasilis Fthenakis

Vasilis Fthenakis, senior research scientist and an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering (EEE), has been working on the energy-water-environmental nexus, with a focus on clean water initiatives, for some 10 years, both at Columbia Engineering where he directs the Center for Life Cycle Analysis, and at Brookhaven National Laboratory where he has been leading the Photovoltaics Environmental Research Center since the late 1990s. He is currently working on integrating renewable energy (RE) into water desalination systems to improve the availability of clean, potable water, and building global collaborations to more effectively tackle this challenge, one that affects almost 25% of the world’s population.

Fthenakis is particularly interested in integrating photovoltaics (PV) with advanced hybridization of desalination systems, especially as recent cost reductions in PV production are now allowing for cheaper electricity generation than from fossil fuels. His team was one of three finalists selected in July for the U.S.-Israel Integrated Energy and Desalination Design Challenge National Laboratory Call. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources, the challenge will bring together U.S. and Israeli experts to work on desalination and associated system design issues, while advancing innovative thinking on next-generation systems. The team includes EEE PhD candidate Adam Atia, who has also won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship supporting his research on desalination, Ngai Yin Yip, assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering, who works on cutting-edge membrane technologies; and Bill Becker, adjunct professor in EEE and vice president of Hazen & Sawyer, who has more than 30 years of experience on water treatment and reuse.

“By 2030, 47% of the global population will face water scarcity,” notes Fthenakis. “With global demand for drinking water growing exponentially, it’s now critical more than ever that we come up with a way to reduce the projected increases in CO2 emissions from desalination. And it’s equally essential that we make the desalination process cleaner and more affordable.”

Last year Fthenakis advised the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) on the prospects of RE-powered water desalination, and cofounded the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance (GCWDA)–“H20 minus CO2,” one of the few climate initiatives focused on the water-energy nexus and climate change. This new initiative, which includes more than 80 signatories, was launched during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) and is a key component of the Lima-Paris Action Plan, a strategy led by France, Peru, the UN Secretary-General, and the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was introduced by Masdar, a renewable energy company in Abu Dhabi, and supported by the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France, and the International Desalination Association (IDA).

Water desalination removes salt and minerals from water sources that are unfit for human consumption and for use in industrial processes. There are a few well-established water desalination technologies that provide water for populations in regions lacking sufficient access to fresh water sources, as well as for industrial activities that rely on clean water. It is estimated that there are currently more than 18,000 desalination plants in operation worldwide, with a maximum production capacity of around 90 million cubic meters of water every day, enough to satisfy up to half of the potable water needs in the water-stricken regions like the Gulf countries.

The Solar-Energy-Water Environment Nexus

The problem is that water desalination is typically an energy-intensive process largely powered by fossil fuel sources. As a result, the CO2 emissions associated with water desalination are significant. The GCWDA estimates that the desalination plants currently in operation worldwide emit about 80 million metric tons of CO2 per year.  

“As access to potable water becomes a growing global issue, we can expect an increase in the use of desalinization plants to satisfy the critical need to ensure survival of large parts of the world’s population,” Fthenakis observes. “And if no actions are taken to stop or slow down this trend, we can expect that emissions may grow to 500 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2040; this is at the level that developed countries like Canada and U.K. emit today.”

Clean energy could be an alternative energy source for water desalination technologies but it is not widely used as there are not yet many concepts and system designs that can handle the deterministic and stochastic variability of renewable energy resources.

Fthenakis has a long background in energy system analysis and life cycle analysis (LCA) and has founded and led international multi-country partnerships under the auspices of the International Energy Agency (IEA). For more than 10 years, his Center for Life Cycle Analysis has been conducting leading studies on the feasibility of solar, together with other renewable energy resources, to satisfy most of the electricity needs of the U.S. and LCA of conventional and RE life cycles. His studies are helping to guide technology and energy policy decisions in Europe and the United States.

“Inexpensive solar energy makes desalination increasingly the most affordable option for providing fresh water in arid areas,” he notes. “I’m very excited about the impact our new Alliance will have. We are developing a wide range of plans for research, development, and demonstrations, as well as programs for international research, education, and outreach.”

Fthenakis was recently elected to the board of the GCWDA, which includes governments, energy, water and related industry stakeholders, research organizations, universities, and NGOs. Industry partners include Veolia, ENGIE, Suez Energy, IDE Tech, AXWA power, Dow Chemical, Abengoa, and First Solar; academic partners include Columbia, MIT, and universities in Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, and Korea.

Inspired by the GCWDA, Fthenakis joined forces with other desalination experts in the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Chile, Israel, Greece, and Turkey, in a proposed international partnership for research and education to advance water desalination and reuse technologies without CO2 emissions. 

—by Holly Evarts

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