Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ground zero in the energy-water nexus

By  | February 6, 2013, 3:00 AM PST

The oil and gas producing countries of the Middle East may be sitting pretty in fossil fuels, but they have an urgent problem with their water supply.
That was the focus of the International Water Summit held in conjunction with the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago, which I attended at the invitation and on the dime ofMasdar. The slogan of the conference was “Bringing the water-energy nexus to life,” a topic I last covered in August.
“The availability of potable water is one of the most pressing issues in the world, particularly in the Gulf region where water production is a costly and energy-intensive process,” explained Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, managing director and CEO of Masdar City.
The numbers (provided by ADWEC, aka Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company) are frightening.
Abu Dhabi’s water demand has more than doubled over the past 10 years as tall gleaming glass buildings leapt out of the sand across the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Consumption is rising even faster than electricity demand, which is growing at an average annual growth rate of 9.5 percent.
All of the water in the emirate’s distribution system — the water used for human consumption — is produced by nine large desalination plants, to the tune of 634 million Imperial gallons a day in 2011. By 2016, just three years from now, demand is expected to increase another 45 percent, to 999 million Imperial gallons a day.
Abu Dhabi water demand forecast. Source: ADWEC
Virtually all desalination activities are currently powered by natural gas-fired cogeneration plants burning an average of 1.73 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of gas. About half of that power generation is used for desalination. Therefore, about 0.86 Bcf/d of gas went to water desalination in 2011, which likely rose to 1 Bcf/d in 2012 (data for 2012 is not yet available).
Nationally, the UAE imports more gas than it produces. As I detailed in my last column, the nation produced around 5 Bcf in 2010, but consumed 5.86 Bcf. In short, it imports almost exactly the same amount of gas as Abu Dhabi uses for water desalination. At current European gas import prices, that would be more than $12 million a day, or $4.4 billion a year, in sacrificed revenue.
Exactly where UAE gets its gas imports, or what it pays for them, is not public information, but it’s clearly a major expense. The emirate of Abu Dhabi has a slightly better gas balance, with a net surplus of 0.11 Bcf/d in 2010, according to the Statistics Centre of Abu Dhabi.

Water they thinking?

Desalination is the only way to produce more water in these arid countries. To put the word “arid” in perspective, Abu Dhabi receives an average of just 82 millimeters (mm) of rainfall per year — less than one-quarter the rainfall recorded in the state of Arizona.
Worse, the groundwater that provided around 80 percent of its water supply 10 years ago is drying up, and becoming increasingly saline. Water tables are dropping quickly, and according toa 2005 study, the paltry rainfall is only able to manage a 4 percent recharge rate to those aquifers.

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