BUSINESS

Tapping the oceans of the world

Spanish companies are among the global leaders in desalination technology

The Carboneras desalination plant in Almería province.
The Carboneras desalination plant in Almería province.FRANCISCO BONILLA / EL PAÍS

In 1964, Spain began building Europe's first desalination plant, since then becoming a leader in the technology that converts brine into drinking water. Spanish companies such as Acciona, Ferrovial, FCC, Abengoa and Sacyr lead the market, operating in India, West Africa, the Middle East and North America, bringing sustainable clean water to millions of people. Today, Spain is the fourth-largest user of desalination technology in the world, behind Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Spain's more than 700 plants produce approximately 1.6 million cubic meters of water each day, or enough for about eight million people.

"It's not simply that Spain is a world leader in desalination; it's that our companies are the top players, and are building the biggest desalination plants," says Antonio Dorado, chairman of Sadyt, the water division of Sacyr-Vallehermoso, which runs plants in Chile, Israel and Australia.

He says that until recently, Spanish companies were focused mainly on the domestic market, but over the last decade they have begun entering new markets around the world.

For example, Abengoa is currently building West Africa's first desalination plant in Ghana to supply water to more than half a million people. The plant, using reverse osmosis technology, will be able to desalinate 60,000 cubic meters of water per day. Abengoa will design and construct the facility, as well as operate and maintain it over a 25-year period. The construction phase will take 24 months and create 400 jobs.

Spain is the world's fourth-largest user of desalination technology

Almost 50 percent of Acciona Agua's activities are outside Spain. A world leader in reverse osmosis desalination, it is building plants in London and Adelaide, as well as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Italy, Peru, Chile and the United States.

Spain's domination of the sector is such that when Oman recently put out a tender for a desalination plant, five of the seven bidding companies were Spanish.

The key to making desalination a viable economic proposition lies in reverse osmosis, something that Spanish companies have perfected.

The first desalination plants were based on the simple idea of boiling or evaporating water to separate the water from the salt. The idea of using a membrane to separate salt from sea-water had been explored in the early 20th century. The technique is based on the osmotic nature of cell walls: certain semi-permeable membranes, such as animal and plant cell walls, allow water to pass through, creating equilibrium between a highly concentrated solution on one side of the membrane and a diluted concentration on the other.

Its firms have begun entering markets around the world over the last decade

Scientists hypothesized that with the right amount of pressure and with the correct membrane design, this natural phenomenon could be reversed through a man-made membrane. Instead of flowing from a diluted solution to a highly concentrated one, equalizing them both, the concentrate could be forced through a membrane, leaving an even higher concentrated solution of dissolved solids (in this case, salt) behind. By the 1970s, desalination-plant developers had adopted reverse osmosis for use in desalination.

Though more efficient than vaporization or distillation, and requiring far less physical space for the same operation, these plants were still energy hungry. Over time, engineers developed recovery systems to take advantage of the high pressure of waste brine left after the reverse-osmosis process. This has led to precipitous drops in energy needs for the process, reducing the cost, while the cost of the membranes used in reverse-osmosis technology have also dropped about 50 percent.

After José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist Party won the 2004 general election, it cancelled a plan backed by its Popular Party predecessor to channel water from the Ebro river in the north to help the dry south-east of the country. Instead, the Socialists chose to invest 2 billion euros in a string of big desalination plants along the coast.

The announcement of the plans to develop these new plants within Spain has been a boon for desalination companies. Most also specialize in other forms of water treatment, such as waste-water treatment or water purification. But the real prize for many of these companies, the way they have been able to become significant players on the international market, has been their experience with desalination.

"This country has invested heavily in desalination technology, which has given us a certain competitive advantage," says José Antonio Caballero of engineering company Inypsa.

"We have been working for the past 30 years on all these desalination plants," says Jose Antonio Medina, president of the International Desalination Association and head of the Spanish Desalination and Reutilization Association. "That gave Spanish companies the necessary experience with both building and operating plants. At the moment Spain has the highest number of companies in the world with this level of technology and experience in desalination."

At times today the companies are competitors when submitting bids for new plants, whether for individual stages, such as the design, or for the plant's building and operation. At times the companies work in various consortia. The Spanish government, in an effort to support a variety of Spanish companies, divided the development of the landmark Carboneras plant. Separate bids were taken for the design and engineering, construction and operation of the plant. At the end, Inima worked out the engineering and design details. A consortium of Pridesa, Degremont, Befesa and OHL, Inima's parent company, undertook the construction. Today, Inima operates the plant.

This experience with different aspects of plant development and management, with a wide variety of plants, is the key to the companies' competitiveness, according to representatives. "Each plant is different," says Ignacio Zuñiga, international business development manager of Cadagua. "There are different conditions in different oceans. And the conditions of the intake of the plant or the level of pollution in the area - all of these affect the pre-treatment of the water and the design of the entire plant."

Representatives of each company, in competing against the others in the market, point to specific company strengths. Most are backed by large construction groups or other financially secure, multinational companies that provide the needed resources and stability for investments in this sector.

Water scarcity is already one of the major challenges facing developing and developed countries alike, and solutions need to be found: "The growth potential is vast," says Inypsa's Caballero.

According to Global Water Intelligence, around 1 percent of the global population depends on desalinated water: by 2025, that figure will have risen to a quarter, which will mean adding a significant number of new plants to the existing 7,000 dotted around 150 countries. And they will be bigger and bigger: in Melbourne, a plant is under construction that can produce 440,000 cubic meters a day; in Magtaa, in Algeria, a 500,000 cubic meters-a-day plant is being built. According to the Cleantech Group, China is to invest 3 billion dollars in new desalination plants. India is set to add 420 new desalination plants to its existing stock of 180.

While many companies around the world have years of experience in general water treatment, Spanish players have some of the strongest backgrounds globally in the field of desalination plants. "We want to focus more on desalination," says José María Ortega, international commercial director of Pridesa, which builds and manages a variety of water treatment and purification plants in addition to desalination. "Like other Spanish companies, we think it's probably our most significant strength, and the field where we feel we can differentiate ourselves compared with the rest of the competition from overseas."