Desalination to play key role in delivering safe, sustainable water

Leveraging smart automation, electrification and instrumentation solutions to drive energy efficiency in the water cycle.

Keppel Marina East Desalination Plant, Singapore

The rise in the global population has led to increasing demand for essential resources  such as clean water for societies and industries alike. The availability of clean water,  particularly in regions where freshwater is not readily obtained from groundwater or freshwater  sources such as rivers and lakes, often requires water production through saline water sources.

When it comes to supplying potable water, the implementation of the desalination process has gained popularity. The process removes salts, minerals and other contaminants from seawater and wastewater to obtain freshwater for domestic and industrial consumption. Industry experts and climate change proponents have deemed it as a key solution to bridge the gap between demand and supply of clean water. With 98% of the planet’s water stored in the salty seas, desalination surely is going to play an essential role in meeting the ever-expanding demand for water.

However, the desalination process is not devoid of its challenges.

By Fabio Fargionelinkedin
Product Group Manager Power & Water, ABB


Navigating Challenges

Desalination comprises three different processes, including reverse osmosis (RO), multi-stage flash (MSF), and multi-effect distillation (MED). In some cases, these three technologies can be combined to get a hybrid solution. But they come with their own set of operational challenges at the desalination plants and with the implementation of advanced systems such issues can be thwarted. The challenges can be encompassed within the two key areas of energy efficiency and operational effectiveness.

Our water supply and demand situation are worsened or relieved by how well we understand and utilize the water-energy nexus. Simply put, we are using too much water to make energy, and too much energy to deliver water. Whilst desalination is a promising remedy for water shortages, it is also an energy-intensive process. The energy required to run desalination plants can be at least 20% and often as much as half of the overall operational costs of desalination.

Energy efficiency in the water cycle is, therefore, a significant factor in terms of optimising the process of water generation through any technology, whether it is MSF, RO or MED.

ABB’s approach to energy efficiency has three pillars; the first being the constant development of highly efficient products, such as transformers and motors, that contribute to a plant electricity bill. The second pillar is accurate energy audits and advice for plant modifications to help the overall energy footprint, including the use of a variable frequency drive (VFD) to control the process. The final, and perhaps the most important pillar, is the exploitation of the full potential of Industry 4.0 through dedicated digital solutions that optimise the process by identifying the optimal operational points. This gives operators insights to make immediate operational decisions. For instance, taking equipment into service or out of service to provide the same production levels, but with less energy.


In the areas of operational effectiveness, ABB’s solutions reduce operational and maintenance costs and extends the life of plant assets through condition-based maintenance that boosts plant performance and significantly reduces maintenance costs. When applied to one of the critical pieces of equipment at a RO plant, the membranes, condition of the membranes can be chosen, rather than production volumes or time, as the main parameter to decide the regeneration point. The solutions are modular and can be scaled from equipment level to plant and even to network level.

We are using too much water to make energy, and too much energy to deliver water. Whilst desalination is a promising remedy for water shortages, it is also an energy-intensive process.

Water cycle expertise in action

It is all well and good to have the tools and knowledge, but the real test is in having solutions out in the field with tangible benefits. ABB has delivered instrumentation, automation and electrical solutions for some of the largest, most complex and innovative desalination projects around the world.

One such project was for the Keppel Marina East Desalination Plant, (KMEDP) located in Singapore, which has the potential to produce up to 30 million gallons of fresh drinking water each day. It is Singapore’s fourth desalination plant and one of the first in the world with a dual-mode facility that can treat either freshwater drawn from the nearby Marina Reservoir or seawater, depending on prevailing weather conditions, making it weather-resilient and at the same time providing stable water supply to the community. Officially opened in February 2021, the plant was recently named “Desalination Plant of the Year” at the Global Water Awards 2021 while amassing international recognition and traction.

ABB supplied fully integrated plant automation, electrification, instrumentation and analysers for the plant. The intelligent and integrated solution allows uniformity of procedures, as well as seamless data transfer from field equipment to control system for analysis and diagnostic purposes, to help improve the quality of operational processes. Its control system is fully digital-ready, having the capability to extend the operation from device to edge to the cloud.

The Middle East is home to some of the largest desalination plants in the world, both in the number of plants and capacity. In the Magtaa desalination plant located in the western Oran region of Algeria, ABB supplied a turnkey electrical solution to power that was, during the construction time, the world’s largest membrane-based RO seawater desalination plant. This plant has a designated capacity of 500,000m3 per day of drinking water to serve about five million people. The project is part of the Algerian government’s efforts to ensure the provision of clean drinking water to its growing population.

ABB was responsible for the design, engineering, supply, installation and commissioning of the electrical plant system, which included constructing a 220kV outdoor substation to provide power to the facility and supply products, such as power transformers, medium-voltage drives and a range of medium and low-voltage switchgear.

ABB’s role extended beyond the plant’s commissioning. The company’s team of experts were involved throughout the various phases of the project, helping to maximise operational efficiency by minimising downtime and optimising energy efficiency through ABB’s service offering, including ABB Ability digital solutions.

An example of ABB’s solutions for the complete water cycle is at the Jeddah Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plant Phase 1 in Saudi Arabia. This seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant has a capacity of 48,848m3 per day and was initially commissioned 20 years ago. When the existing obsolete distributed control system needed to be upgraded, a solution was delivered based on ABB Ability Symphony Plus, ABB’s flagship automation system for water and power. This was seamless integrated with the existing plant management system. In addition, ABB’s team minimised downtime and ensured a short delivery and commissioning time, with the plant only shut down for 10 days.

In Saudi Arabia, ABB has supplied a distributed control system (DCS) using ABB’s digital technology for the Yanbu Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plant RO-1. The seawater RO plant is made up of six trains of about 2.2 MGD capacity each and consists of five major components: a seawater supply system, a feedwater pre-treatment system, high-pressure pumping, RO modules and permeate post-treatment system.

Just across the border, in Oman, ABB helped develop one of the largest RO plants in the Gulf. Oman is a region that has 80% of its landmass as desert, and with a growing population, had an increasing demand for drinking water. The Al Ghubra plant has a potable water production capacity of 191,000m3 per day, equivalent to supplying a population of 800,000 people using RO. Within a year of starting operation, plant operators were on track to meet the increasing demand for drinking water, which is currently at around 827,000m3 per day. This figure is expected to increase at an average rate of 6% annually in the coming years.

Another project in ABB’s portfolio is the Taweelah project. Approximately 45km north of Abu Dhabi city, this project houses one of the world’s largest desalination plant with a capacity of 909,200m3 per day. ABB’s technology will be powering the plant with its energy-efficiency products and solutions. Upon completion, the plant will be able to meet demand from more than 350,00 households.

Sustainable water industry

As the water industry moves into a digital age, instrumentation must become so much more than process control, and instead focus on the importance of integrating data. Customers want control systems to be able to “talk” to maintenance management systems, modelling and planning systems, and ERP systems, with the flexibility for SCADA solutions, to not only provide information about water generation but to go downstream and connect to systems handling the transmission networks.

To identify, analyse and cater to consumer behaviour and demand patterns, it is imperative that water plant operators have an integrated system that brings in the data from the distribution networks so that economic points of dispatch can be found. This enables real-time adjustments to be made to systems while identifying optimal sources of generation and points of operation.

ABB operates across the entire water cycle, from water production and treatment, through transmission, distribution, water reuse and irrigation. ABB technologies are aimed at optimising the process, reducing operation and maintenance costs, minimising energy consumption, and then improving plant productivity and reliability, as well as avoiding dispersion of this precious resources. Close collaboration with customers is prioritised and valued, with ABB taking water from the source and making it fit for consumption through desalination or other treatment processes. At ABB, embodying digital leadership includes striving to find innovative solutions that help bridge the gaps between the supply and demand of this most valuable resource.

Maintenance management systems, modelling and planning systems, and ERP systems, with the flexibility for SCADA solutions, to provide information about water generation and to connect to downstream systems handling the transmission networks

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