IDE Technologies: Making Seawater Desalination Sustainable
A seawater desalination company faces a big energy problem
The combined effects of rapid population growth, particularly in the developing world, and climate change offer a grim outlook for water availability worldwide, but for IDE Technologies, a world leader in seawater desalination technology, these trends offer great opportunities for growth. Even today, 80% of world’s population lives in areas facing some form of water shortages or vulnerability. (1) Population growth and urbanization will exacerbate the number and percentage of individuals facing both perennial and seasonal shortages of water by many times (see Figure 1). Surprisingly, in some regions, climate change will lead to more water prevalence than before, thus leveling out the overall global impact of climate change on water availability. (2)
IDE Technologies is an Israeli company which was established in the 1960’s to deal with the country’s chronic water shortages through desalination, the process of converting salty or brackish water into freshwater. In 2005, its plant in Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel, made seawater desalinated water an economically viable product for water-strapped regions through advanced reverse osmosis (RO) technologies and contributed significantly to giving Israel water security to the extent that Israel is now a net water exporter. Today, IDE has risen to be one of the global leaders in the seawater desalination space, with desalination plants in Israel, the U.S., China, and several additional locales. (3) The Carlsbad Desalination Project in San Diego, CA, the largest seawater reverse osmosis plant in the U.S, is operated by IDE Technologies and now contributes a significant percentage of San Diego’s water supply.
IDE’s success in this space and the impending global rise in demand for water clearly paves the way for future growth of the company. But climate change is not just a boon for IDE’s business. It is also a critical impetus for innovation and continual improvement to the IDE product. While desalination technologies such as IDE’s seem to imply a panacea for the water-related ills of climate change, desalination is an extremely energy intensive process which today still requires many of the fossil fuels that are causing climate change in the first place. In fact, it is about 10x more energy intensive than groundwater (see Table 1).
How can IDE possibly be an effective leader in the environmental space while its product is so energy intensive? It will need to find ways to use alternative energies to produce its products. It has already taken steps in this direction such as making incremental changes in its products to become the industry’s most energy efficient reverse osmosis technology, reusing heat and steam from other industrial processes in the desalination process, and beginning to explore the use of wasted solar energy in desalination. (4)
But this is not enough. A recent discussion at MIT raised several possible ways in which desalination could utilize renewable energy and the challenges with each. Solar power has been seen as many as a good source of energy, but its variable nature raises issues for a continuous operation. Other energy types such as nuclear energy, which could possibly be deployed offshore and remove much of the onshoring cost of seawater to plants on the grid, wind, geothermal, could be deployed. (5) How should IDE proceed?
First, IDE should continue to position itself as a thought leader in the space and encourage academic research into this topic. It is clear that there must be a sound solution to these issues but as of yet, the path is not clear. Much work is being done in the academic sphere across the world and IDE needs to be the address for those researchers to engage and test out new technologies. They should specifically test out the offshore idea – rather than waste energy bringing water onshore and then discharging the sludge into coastal waters, IDE should invest in different ways to do this offshore and in more modular forms. Even its most impressive plants such as the Carlsbad plant only provide a small percentage of water needed to a very limited geography. The fixed nature of these desalination plants and the energy intensity that they require may be creating inefficiencies that could be addressed if their product was smaller scale. IDE’s history has been one of making big bets and it needs to continue to do so with energy efficiency solutions in order to remain a viable product into the 21st century and beyond.
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- Grubert, Stillwell, and Webber, “Where does solar-aided seawater desalination make sense? A method for identifying sustainable sites,” Desalination 339 (2014), pp. 10-17. Accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0011916414000678, November 3, 2016.
- McDonald, Green, Balk, et al., “Urban growth, climate change, and freshwater availability,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108, no. 15 (April, 2011), pp. 6312-6317. Accessed at http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6312.full, November 3, 2016.
- IDE Technologies, corporate website. Accessed at https://www.ide-tech.com/company-profile/, November 3, 2016.
- IDE Technologies, corporate website. Accessed at http://www.ide-tech.com/company-profile/works/ide-and-the-environment/, November 3, 2016.
- MIT News. Accessed at http://news.mit.edu/2016/workshop-green-saltwater-desalination-1019, November 3, 2016.
Student comments on IDE Technologies: Making Seawater Desalination Sustainable
I gained some new perspectives on desalination from Ross’ article- specifically that IDE tech is the leader of the massive Carlsbad Project and how desalinization is still extremely energy intensive and counter-productive towards the net effects of climate change. His proposal of using nuclear energy to solve the desalinization plant energy problem is fascinating- especially considering the prior environmental considerations of nuclear energy on local water supply. If these problems can be solved, a nuclear/desalinization combo could be very intriguing. Another aspect Ross may want to think about are the economic concerns towards the individual consumer of desalinization. Desalinized water is 2x more expensive than current ground tap-water in San Diego (http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-05-15/desalination-expensive-energy-hog-improvements-are-way). Are there ways IDE is trying to tackle this issue?
Desalination has such interesting applications but from this article, it seems as though the technology has a long road ahead in order to become a more cost-effective and less resource-intensive technology. I am astounded by the fact that 80% of the world’s population live in areas with limited water supplies. With such a high percentage, I am curious to know if IDE Technologies have looked to partner with national governments to gain access to resources to assist in further R&D to leverage this technology.
Another interesting point in the article is that Israel is a net water exporter. What is the environmental impact on exporting this water to other regions? I also wonder how IDE can optimally position their global desalination plants in order to minimize their environmental impact from transporting desalinated water. The article brings up an excellent point around desalination offshore. It will be interesting to see if this industry decides to shift to smaller plans in order to be able to have presences in a larger number of geographies or if larger plants are in fact the most economical and sustainable way to desalinate water.