Sustainability should play key role in energy and water sector post-Covid-19

Sustainability should play key role in energy and water sector post-Covid-19

2 Jul 2020

Written by Dr Corrado Sommariva, CEO and founder, Sustainable Water and Power Consultants


Apart from a very few exceptions, the recent pandemic has mown down more or less all sectors of the global economy. What will change after the pandemic is that several investments will be made available as a “stimulus” to get economies started again. At this point it will possible to decide what to prioritise and support in the present economy, and what should be changed or left in the past.

For global sustainability goals there could not be a better opportunity restart with on the right foot, letting go parts of the economy that were unsustainable before the pandemic and stimulate those that offer a sustainable alternative for the future. In the energy sector, this offers the possibility of creating an enormous amount of new green jobs through a gradual reconversion of the various industry segments. Clean energy could drive $1 to $2 trillion a year in infrastructure investment and create up to 20 millions job globally, according to Bloomberg.

In the water and energy sector, to build a clean-energy economy will create new jobs. Some of these jobs will be in specialised sectors such as installing solar panels, increasing energy efficiency, and researching new building material technologies. More generally, an overall clean-energy investment program may provide a major boost to the construction and manufacturing sectors throughout the GCC.

In the water and energy sectors, state utilities have for many years simply been rehabilitating and extending the life of old power and water plants, many of which have been inefficient from an energy point of view. The post-pandemic development will offer a chance to change this approach.

Conversion of power and water plants to new fuel configurations and renewable energy sources will not only provide the opportunity of creating “green jobs,” but will also lead to a rapid return on investments through energy and OPEX savings that are achieved by reconversion. The availability of post pandemic stimulus packages in the GCC’s power and water sectors will offer the opportunity to modernise power and water infrastructure, making it ready for the future nexus of renewable – desalination and energy storage.


Building resilience through renewable energy and decentralisation


What this pandemic has revealed is the fragility of the economy and a dependence on long-distance supplies for what is needed for day to day life. For the water and energy sector this means the supply of fuel, chemicals, spare parts, amongst many others, to keep the plants in operation. In these conditions, running a coal-fired or a nuclear power plant in the GCC for instance will imply depending on long distance supply of fuel and strategic components which, in time of a pandemic will not only be logistically difficult, but also more expensive, to procure.

 On the other hand, renewable energy, is generated from the natural resources available locally, virtually free from imported chemicals and spare components are minimal. Hence investing more in renewable energy dramatically lowers dependence on long-distance supply chains than any other technologies. Increasing the renewable energy share in the region’s power generation portfolio, and decreasing the coal and nuclear plans, will not only help achieve sustainability goals but also provide more resilience against unforeseen events in the future such as pandemics.

The pandemic has also drastically changed the patterns of water usage and consumption, with rises in the residential sector and decreases in the commercial real estate, tourism and industrial sectors.

What does should this mean for future planning and future desalination requirements?

Smaller desalination facilities generating water to serve a dedicated city cluster would offer significantly more advantages than a centralised desalination and waste water treatment system. It is true that large centralised plants allow utilities and sponsors to obtain debt on a nonrecourse basis. Transaction costs and time consumption are much higher on small seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) projects and lenders tend to avoid such transactions.

However, if a concession was based on cluster arrangements, where districts were served by smaller desalination plants operated by the same special purpose company that was also providing sewage treatment, this could offer tremendous advantages both in terms of costs and energy footprint. With this pattern, transportation and distribution costs and required energy for potable water and conveyance for sewage would be drastically reduced.


Figure 1: small district desalination project agreement and financing schemes


Figure 2 below shows some potential advantages that would arise from the actual state (referred to recent IWPs) and a possible cluster scenario.


 Figure 2: specific energy consumption comparison


Figure 2 shows a specific energy comparison of thee whole water cycle between the actual scenario of centralized water generation and wastewater treatment with the possible scenario of cluster generation. In the case of cluster generation, Co2 consumption can decrease because a lot of water required for non-domestic purpose can be reclaimed. Consumption can be reduced further if the energy for water production andf treatment comes from renewable energy sources such as PV solar.


Globalisation reversed

The idea of countries and regions producing goods and services to be dispatched and used somewhere else the world is a great obstacle to the objective of a sustainable development. The availability of increasingly cheaper clean energy may reshape the industry with regard to manufacturing, particularly in the GCC, in a way which enables the diversification of hydrocarbon-dependent economies and reducing the reliance on imports.

The availability of cheap and sustainable energy can drive many other sectors of the economy. New technologies and methods of engineering have also emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Saudi Water Partnerships Company (SWPC) has been able to proceed with tenders, award projects and reach financial close for several large water and wastewater schemes. Progress was achieved using video-conferencing and other digital communication tools, technology that already existed but had previously been neglected.

Now it has been proven that meetings can be held remotely and progress can be made reducing travels, costs and optimising time, valuable expertise and knowledge can be made available to clients anywhere in the world.

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