In March this year, the Monsson Group, a leading company in renewable energy, officially launched its entry into the Qatari market with the announcement of the company’s pilot project – the Reverse Osmosis Water Desalination Plant powered by renewable energy. The project is located in a farm owned by Ali Hussain Ali Al-Sada and it is the first such farm in Qatar. Al-Sada explains: “The reverse osmosis process powered by renewable energy is a ground-breaking development in Qatar offering fresh desalinated water with very low energy cost and consumption. We believe this is the way forward and the perfect solution for addressing increasing energy demand without tapping into precious fossil fuel reserves. Our objective is to draw on the forces of nature to create a consistent and sustainable generation of electric power.”
Asked about the importance of developing sustainable energy solutions in Qatar in terms of environment and gas and oil reserves, Costin Lupu, Monsson’s director Middle East and Africa, says to BQ: “Based on the Ministry of Environment Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) Report, 19 November 2015, Qatar is in the process of achieving energy efficiency. Despite the abundance of gas, a fossil fuel energy source, Qatar is investing in clean renewable energy resources such as solar and wind. Qatar is highly committed to research and development in various areas including sustainable energy, investing in education that aims at building an environmentally aware society that can contribute to its sustainable development, and undertaking key initiatives in relation to water management.”
Lupu is convinced the solution for Qatar is to use water desalination plants that are powered by zero-carbon renewable energy sources to secure water supply while improving energy efficiency and reducing air pollutant emissions. He lists the advantages over a traditional desalination plant: “Our plant is fully automated, remotely controlled 24/7 by our European Dispatch Centre, it can function on and off-grid and has low energy consumption. Very remote locations can be supplied with green energy and fresh water at reasonable costs; it is easy to extend the desalinating and produced energy capacities, while the generating power can be used both for desalination and other energy consumers on the farm, in the limit of design. Moreover, specially designed green houses for desert conditions can be constructed, permitting year round vegetable production and additionally, as it is a containerized system delivery, there is no need of buildings and special approvals.”
A 50% recovery
Solar panels are used to produce the electricity needed in the Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination process. The photovoltaic (PV) plant produces the energy demand of the RO unit and supplies extra energy production to other farm consumers during sunny days. Raw water is pumped through the membranes where it is “filtered” in fresh water and rejects brine water. The recovery ratio (fresh water production ratio) of the unit is 50 percent.
One of the main issues of solar PV efficiency represents the energy loss due to panels soiling, which can reach up to 35 percent. Monsson brings to Qatar the panel dry cleaning technology for solar PV. It is a dry-type cleaning system which does not require consumption of water or installation of pipes or water tanks. The dry cleaning process increases energy production of the solar PV plant by up to 20-25 percent.
The system can be customized from a simple system, manually operated to a fully independent automated system, remote controlled via SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) or a mobile app (iOS/Android). The plant can also be used for other purposes, Lupu points out. “The energy produced by the solar PV plant can be used for desalination, for other energy consumers on the farm or can be evacuated in the national grid, in the limit of design. The water can be used for crop irrigation outside or in a greenhouse. If it is remineralized, the potable water can be used to water the farm’s domestic animals or for working personnel’s consumption.”
Investment pays off in three years
What about the costs of installing such a plant and its long-term cost effectiveness? “Our reverse osmosis water desalination plant powered by renewable energy, installed in one of Al-Sada’s family farms, turned out to be a wise choice,” says Lupu. “The extremely positive advantages can be easily observed even if only three months have passed since commissioning. The watering process is much cheaper and easier and crop yield has improved. Before production of its own fresh water, total water cost was USD 6.4 per cubic metre (water = USD 1.44/m³ + USD 5/m³ – transportation). Now water production cost is USD 0.49 per cubic metre for the next 25 years and beyond. The costs mentioned include all operational costs including energy, spare parts and service labour. If financing is considered for construction, a cost component has to be added, in value of some USD 0.7 per cubic metre, depending on financing conditions.”
He adds that the investment cost is site specific, dependant on production capacity, the size of the solar PV power plant and if grid connection is available or not, among other factors. A fully automated desalination plant of a capacity of 100 m³/day costs about USD 280,000. Lupu expects the total investment to pay off in about three years. “The benefits in these three years although are notable. Designed to operate in the desert’s very harsh weather conditions, with or without connection to the local or national grid, the installation has the capability of supplying fresh water for drinking and crop irrigation in small and medium-size farms. This plant, in addition to specially designed greenhouse for desert conditions, could allow year round vegetable production.”
Although Al-Sada’s plant is the first of its kind, it is certainly not going to be the last. Lupu finds there is a keen interest in these kinds of projects, due to high availability, efficiency and redundancy combined with a very low water production cost, and the company has already received many inquiries in the last months. Potential clients are small to large farms, located along the coast or inland, where the groundwater is too salty to be properly used for irrigation.
Although enthroned in almost every nation’s future vision policy, green energy projects have suffered serious setbacks globally, as prices of crude continue to be low. But Lupu believes there is no interference between oil prices and renewable sources. “Even with the actual very low oil price, the cost of water resulting from thermal desalination is more expensive than the water produced by RO with renewable energy. In case of thermal desalination, the price of water is always dependent on oil price and the more expensive operation costs. In case of RO desalination powered by renewable, the cost of water is lower, calculated and known for the next 30 years and the process has much lower operation costs than thermal desalination. A thermal desalination plant has the expected operation life of about 20 years. The life expectancy for RO powered by renewable energy is long, beyond 30 years,” he drives home his point.