Renewable Energy Key to Making Desalination Work for Water-Crunched Countries

desalination plant interior photo

Interior of a desalination plant. Photo via Lance Cheung via Flickr CC

Just last week we noted that the UAE is dependent on fossil fuel- and natural gas-burning desalination plants to keep up their excessive water use, and that the reliance could spell a water disaster in the very near future as fuel supplies run low. However, there's another source of energy that the UAE (and many similarly dry areas) has in abundance -- sunlight. Utilizing solar power to run desalination plants could be one key step in making this source of fresh water more environmentally friendly. A new initiative called "Promotion of Renewable Energy for Water Production through Desalination" is pushing for a greater use of solar power and other renewables in generating water in coastal countries. Desalination is an energy intensive process and the pros of fresh water supplies often aren't enough to outweigh the cons of enormous fuel use and carbon emissions output. While many areas worldwide are feeling the crunch to find new water sources and desalination seems an appealing solution, there are serious issues with the process. That's why the use of renewable energy makes so much sense, especially sunlight and wind power.

Global Water Intelligence has found that desalination plants worldwide produced nearly 12 billion gallons of water daily in 2008, and this amount will likely double by 2016, according to an article from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. The countries relying the most on desalination as a water source include Arab countries around the Persian Gulf, as well as Spain, Greece and Italy. They're all areas with ample sunlight, making solar-power a far more attractive option than fossil fuel-powered desalination.

The European "ProDes" initiative, which stands for "Promotion of Renewable Energy for Water Production through Desalination," is pushing for the education of officials deciding on desalination, showing them all the options available for more environmentally responsible water generation.

The ProDes initiative points out that different renewable choices are ideal for different locations. Some might be better suited for solar while others might want to turn to wind or tidal power. For example, Australia has a desalination plant running on a combination of wind, solar and geothermal. Additionally, the type of technology to be used is dependent upon factors such as the salinity of the water being drawn into the plant, and how much water is needed.

Of course, the fuel source isn't the only environmental problem with desalination. The impact on the marine ecosystem from which the salt water is drawn and into which the brine is dumped can be serious. Some desalination systems, such as the one built in Sand City, California, have come up with solutions, including drawing and releasing water at the groundwater level rather than directly from and to the sea. But this isn't the case -- or even necessarily an option -- for larger the plants needed to sustain city populations.

Desalination is going to become an increasingly popular option for fresh water in coastal areas suffering water shortages, so the more information, technology, and education about the options for using renewable energy to run the plants (as well as options for minimizing or eliminating the impacts of desalination on marine life), the better.

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