Renewable Energy May Provide the World’s Most-Needed Resource
Wars are more likely to be fought over it than any other single commodity. The lack of it remains the single greatest cause of famine, disease, and early death in many parts of the world.
Yet some 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by it…
I’m talking, of course, about water.
There’s plenty out there. The challenge has been to efficiently desalinate seawater and brackish water to make it fit for human consumption. This is especially a problem in those areas without access to ready sources of conventional power. Further inland, the problem is brackish, polluted, or contaminated water.
Both paint a bleak picture for the prospects of populations throughout the world.
Enter Spectra Watermakers…
This private company, based in San Rafael, California, has been in the reverse osmosis and energy recovery pump business since 1976.
Reverse osmosis is the well-known process of filtering solutions (like water) to exclude larger molecules and ionized particles – such as salt and contaminants. It has been used for many years aboard ships and yachts, where fresh water supply is limited
However, the company’s technology also does something else (and this is the real reason I have an interest in it)…
Spectra is a leader in utilizing solar and wind power to do what it does.
Therein lies the merging of two major elements – a worldwide need and the renewable energy to attend to it.
And I have had some direct experience that speaks to just how important this approach could be.
Access to Water Is A Question of Survival
Last year while in Uganda to advise on developing the oil discovery there (“The Next ‘Crude Rush’ Is Officially Underway,”), I witnessed firsthand what the lack of clean water means for a population. Despite significant lake systems on both sides of the country, the water is unusable.
The result is people being forced to use unfit water for everything essential to their survival.
Unfortunately, it is that survival that is often put at risk…
You don’t have to be by the seashore to understand the impact of what companies like Spectra are doing.
This is not simply about desalination. Nor is it simply about the condition of the water.
There is also the need for a fuel source to power the reverse osmosis pump.
That usually puts a premium on diesel fuel to generate electricity on site, making it unattainable for many of the populations that most desperately need the water – either because of its scarcity or its price.
And there is also the increasing carbon footprint and environmental concerns arising from the energy source used.
This brings us back to Spectra.
Renewable Sources Eliminate the Fuel Problem
By employing solar or wind power for its pumps, Spectra eliminates the fuel problem. It allows the process to be brought directly to the people who need it most.
The company’s newest high-pressure pump (the SP-20 Pearson Pump) is a major step toward providing an energy-efficient reverse osmosis method to desalinate seawater and treat otherwise undrinkable water on land.
It combines feed water pumping and energy recovery into a single unit, allowing for the recapture of as much as 80% of the energy wasted in conventional systems.
Now – to put this in perspective – earlier versions of these pumping systems utilizing solar power could produce about 3,000 gallons of fresh water per day. The new process can increase that amount by 30%.
And the system’s higher efficiency brings energy requirements down to about 2.1 kiloWatt hours per 1,000 liters – a major advance over earlier approaches.
Spectra’s current version of the pumping process (the SP-5) is used in a number of challenging locations around the world: Afghanistan, Australia, Chile, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and the South Pacific, among others.
The new SP-20 version, after having endured two years of tough lab testing, was introduce in late January and will be field-tested over the next several months.
This is a private company, but both the technology and the combination of reverse osmosis and renewable energy will be catching on. At that point, Spectra becomes a prime takeover target, as the same approach starts to look very appealing to some of the bigger boys.
You can be certain I’ll keep on eye on that situation.
Localizing the Purification Process Can Save More than Money…
There is one final game-changer in this.
As the water supplies in some of Earth’s most densely populated areas come under greater stress – from contamination, saltwater intrusion, and the breakdown in aging water distribution infrastructure systems – one desirable alternative is to localize the water purification process.
Approaches like Spectra’s SP-20 system allow the use of smaller units without the need for a centralized administrative structure. In that way, the capital intensity of addressing the problem is reduced considerably…
…and so are with the deaths and sickness caused by the lack of clean water.
This looming crisis and the associated issues are vast and complex, but part of the solution could lie within a decentralized, non-municipal, distributed water system of smaller plants. Building a distributed infrastructure is less capital-intensive, and can be constructed on an incremental basis.
This model is more easily powered today by renewable energy sources, reducing the cost of energy transmission and its associated infrastructure, while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint. Projects such as these are being built in developing countries and remote areas that do not have an existing infrastructure and lack access to a clean water supply.
This localized concept, however, has advantages that apply anywhere.