Fujairah marks major milestone for desalination in Middle East

The innovative hybrid design of the Fujairah desalination facility paves the way for large-scale reverse osmosis plants in the Middle East.

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The innovative hybrid design of the Fujairah desalination facility paves the way for large-scale reverse osmosis plants in the Middle East.

In the United Arab Emirates, governmental support of private investment in major power and water projects set the trend for other Middle Eastern nations to encourage independently-financed power, water production and wastewater treatment facilities that national budgets cannot afford alone.

Oil revenues remain at record-high levels, US$ 52/barrel in late February, but the massive costs involved in producing water and power for an arid, water-scarce country undergoing rapid economic development, demand far more than the UAE government is willing to invest for long-term projects. Oil prices can also fall, so the government’s interest in encouraging independently water and power projects (IWPP) and further reducing water production costs is understandable.

A quick glance at Dubai’s cityscape provides an accurate account of the country’s booming economy. Cranes tower over construction sites throughout the city and nearby Persian Gulf coast, reflecting an estimated 20% growth in the real estate market. The UAE is already the third largest per capita water consuming country in the world after the USA and Canada, and its ambitious desalination strategy is targeted to meet its ever-increasing water demands. Water consumption in the Emirates is expected to increase by 44% by 2025.

High oil prices, low interest rates and repatriated petrodollars have helped fuel the UAE economy in the past year, resulting in a growth rate of 8%, according to Daniel Hanna, an economist at the Standard Chartered Bank. Considered a centre of business and trade in the Middle East for 20 years, the UAE has attracted much attention due to its free trade zones that make it easy to establish a business, compared to other Gulf nations. In the past two years, petrodollars have flowed into the UAE and other countries in the region from Arab investors no longer willing to invest petrodollars into the US. Slow US growth, rising deficit and even insecurity felt by Arab investors petrodollars being frozen in US banks following the World Trade Center disaster in September 2001, have helped to redirect petrodollars back into the region.

Liberal trade policies and support of privatisation initiatives have created a highly successful development model for other Gulf nations. For example, the US$ 750-million Al Taweelah cogeneration and desalination facility, constructed in Abu Dhabi, marked the Gulf region’s first major dual-purpose desalination and power project that involved private financing. Abu Dhabi is one of seven emirates in the UAE. The facility now supplies 1,350 mW of electricity and 380,000 m3/day of desalinated water. The Suez division of Electricity & Gas International (EGI) and Total won the contract to build the Al Taweelah facility in 2000. The Suez company Tractebel and Total jointly own 40% of Al Taweelah A1. Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, which buys the power and water produced by the project under a long-term contract, holds the remaining 60% share.

Private sector involvement in the desalination industry, originally funded by public monies, is driving down water production costs and increasing the size of desalination facilities. Thermal desalination has predominated in the Middle East region since the 1960s, but the high energy required to fuel multi-stage flash distillation and other thermal processes has driven industry experts to experiment with more cost-effective, alternative processes.

The Fujairah power and desalination facility marks a major technological milestone for the desalination industry in the Middle East. The seawater desalination facility is the world’s first hybrid facility that uses both membrane and thermal technologies. Fujairah is the largest RO seawater desalination plant built to date.

The South Korean firm Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Company acted as main contractor for the Union Water & Electricity Company (UWEC) of UAE to build the water and power plant in Fujairah, with consultancy services from Fichtner of Germany.

Under a €100-million contract, the French company Degremont designed, equipped and supervised the assembly and initial operation of the RO plant. Since it came on line in May 2003, the plant has demonstrated that the process can run reliably on a large scale, according to Degremont. Its total desalination capacity is 450,000 m3/d to supply drinking water for a population of 800,000 in Dubai. This estimate is based on 550 litres per day per capita. The thermal distillation plant produces 280,000 m3/d of drinking water.

The 170,000 m3/d RO plant was constructed on a fast-track basis in only twenty months, compared to the three years it usually takes to complete a project of this size, according to Francois Dao, the Degremont Dubai branch manager. In June 2004, the facility began full operations.

The first major desalination plant to be situated on the eastern coast of UAE, the facility uses seawater from the Gulf of Oman for two reasons. First, the raw water is better in quality than in the Persian Gulf, which is more enclosed and receives more oil and wastewater discharges. Second, water is a strategic resource in this arid country so it made sense to situate the facility in the eastern section of the country. The Al Taweelah plant is located on the northern coast and relies on the Persian Gulf for raw water intake.

Most notably, the Fujairah facility will likely start a new trend in the Middle East to build large-scale hybrid facilities that combine RO with thermal distillation. Significant cost advantages, however, have made RO membrane technology the preferred desalination technology outside of the Middle East for several years. RO accounted for 75% of the 4.8 million m3 per day in new desalination capacity outside of the Middle East in 2002-2003, according to Masons Water Yearbook. This major share marked a significant increase from 53% in 2001.

In the past decade, the UAE, similar to other Middle Eastern nations, met its increasing demand for water by desalinating seawater using thermal distillation in large-scale, high-capacity facilities. Thermal distillation requires considerable power, so the process must be operated jointly with a power station to use the heat generated to reduce power costs. However, this “advantage” was also considered a limiting factor in Fujairah, where the demand for water remains constant throughout the year but power consumption fluctuates widely. Power consumption in the winter runs only half the demand level in the summer when air conditioning units throughout the country are running at peak when temperatures peak at 50 degrees Centigrade. In the summer, gas must be burned to maintain the same production output of desalinated water in the winter, which drives the cost of water up by 400% to 500%, an unacceptably high price.

In 2001, Doosan decided that the Fujairah facility would combine a thermal power station producing 500 mW, a desalination plant based on distillation (280,000 m3/d) and an RO desalination plant that could be run independently of electricity production. The contractor reasoned that this hybrid solution would maximise productivity and cost effectiveness by combining the advantages of thermal desalination and RO with high output and flexibility.

RO uses 2.5 to three times less energy than distillation. RO makes it possible to modulate water supply by increments of 5%, compared to 25% with thermal distillation, so output can be closely adjusted to demand.

One limitation to RO, however, is its sensitivity to raw water quality, so until Fujairah, RO was considered only for small-scale seawater desalination plants in the Middle East. Pre-treatment is essential for desalinating seawater cost-effectively by RO because it removes the mineral and organic micro-pollutants that could clog the filtering membranes, which increase operating costs and reduce the useful life of the membranes. Degremont developed an original pretreatment solution that includes three filter layers - one of pumice stone and two sand filters of different densities - that filter the water at a rate of 12 m3/second. This original formula reduced civil engineering project costs by 50%, according to Mr. Dao.

The 400-m offshore intake system uses three GRP pipes to transport approximately 133,000 m3/h of seawater into the desalination plant. Six pumps draw 110,000 m3/h of seawater into the multi-stage flash (MSF) plant, and two pumps draw 22,000 m3/h into the RO plant.

Reverse osmosis already represents more than 50% of the global desalination market, so Fujairah’s innovative hybrid design and successful track record are expected to open up new prospects for Degremont in the Middle East.


Privatisation opens up growing desalination market

The US war in Iraq slowed down the Middle East desalination market in 2003, but many plants began coming on line in 2004, thereby significantly increasing market revenues last year, according to Frost & Sullivan Analyst Mili Shah (www.frost.com).

“Given a compound annual growth rate of 9.6% from 2003 to 2010, the opportunities for growth within this market are substantial,” she reported, citing research results that show an increase in annual revenues from US$ 1.32 billion in 2003 to US$ 2.5 billion in 2010.

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Desalination is increasingly being considered as a solution to the problems of scarce water supplies, poor water quality and higher per capital water demand, particularly in Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Desalination was previously regarded as a prohibitively expensive solution, but dramatic cost reductions achieved in the past decade have attracted more interest in the technology as a sustainable water supply alternative.

The privatisation trend is significantly altering the competitive road map of the desalination plant market, Shah explained. This trend is opening up the market to a new set of participants, such as financially-sound companies such as CMS Energy, Tractebel and International Power, that can secure and guarantee funding. Traditional equipment suppliers, such as Weir Westgarth and IDE Technologies, have taken on operation and maintenance functions in addition to obtaining financing when required.

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