Taweelah facility sets the tone for Gulf desalination prospects

The Gulf region, and more specifically the UAE, continues to be the catalyst for making desalination a viable, sustainable and large-scale solution (at least in part) to the ever-present problem of providing enough potable water. The Arab Gulf States currently provide more than 60% of the world’s desalination capacity, and as demand for freshwater grows while their natural groundwater resources decline, the UAE is pushing the tempo of desalination project investment. This in turn is opening up the field for the development of new facilities, the implementation of emerging desalination technologies and the introduction of new market players.


Taweelah’s importance at a glance

At the beginning of 2018, The Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA) announced its intention to build the world’s largest water desalination plant at the Al Taweelah Power Complex in Abu Dhabi. Not only will the Taweelah facility have the largest processing capacity of any to date –  some 900,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day – it will also utilise reverse osmosis rather than the more energy-intensive process of distillation. Furthermore, this choice allows the facility to become the first desalination complex to avoid using an integrated natural gas-fired cogeneration power plant.

Taweelah isn’t just important as a landmark example of sustainability in desalination, it’s also drawing significant attention and interest from a diverse range of companies looking to partner with ADWEA and gain a 40% stake in the project if they are able to make a successful tender bid. While there were more than 40 firms expressing interest in the tender when it was first released, that figure has been quickly whittled down to 25 bidders, including Marubeni Corporation, Mitsubishi Corp, Sumitomo Corp, Engie, Veolia, Suez and local firms such as PAL Group and Utico.

While ADWEA can’t accurately determine the overall costs associated with the project until the successful bidder has been announced, the price tag estimates for the facility range from $550 million to $1.2 billion. With so many high-profile companies looking to make such large investments in such an important landmark desalination project, Taweelah could quickly prove to be another vital catalyst in encouraging greater international and domestic involvement in the industry. Likewise, the facility’s successful completion and operation will likely spur many of the same bidders who missed out on becoming involved with Taweelah to try again with future desalination project tenders.

Expanding desalination prospects for the region

Even as the appointment of a partner for ADWEA for the Taweelah project draws near, other projects are entering the pipeline in response to growing demand. To paint a picture of just how much of a part desalination has to play, Sorbonne University believes that in Abu Dhabi alone desalination capacity is expected to triple within the next 12 years, while water consumption has risen at an annual rate of 9.5%, doubling water demand within a mere decade. Ten years ago, groundwater supplied almost 80% of the emirate’s water needs but today it has nearly all gone, catapulting desalination to the fore as the Gulf States battle water scarcity.

Already, Taweelah has prompted the emergence of further large-scale desalination projects. 2018 has quickly become a year for desalination progress, and February saw DEWA announce that its proposed Jebel Ali facility will cost approximately $217.8 million. Like Taweelah, the plant will utilise reverse osmosis and will conform to the highest practicable industry standards of sustainability, a trend that will almost certainly continue, given that DEWA aims to ensure that at least 41% of energy used in desalination comes from clean sources by 2030. Currently, clean energy only represents about 5% of the total, so there’s a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short space of time.

As it progresses, 2018 is shaping up to be an important year for desalination, both in immediate terms for the Gulf region and also in the wider sense of encouraging wider international implementation.