Dr Corrado Sommariva, MD, ILF Consulting Engineers Middle East is no stranger to the global desalination community. With extensive experience in desalination, both thermal and membrane, over 50 papers and two books on the subject to his credit, decisive roles in major desalination developments in the region and international organisations like the European Desalination Society (EDS) and World Health Organisation (WHO), Sommariva’s elevation as the president of International Desalination Association (IDA) for 2011-2013 didn’t come as a surprise. In his first-ever interview after taking over as IDA President, Sommariva spoke to Anoop K Menon on his presidential agenda for the next two years and the industry’s priorities going forward.
As the IDA president, do you have specific plans and ideas you’ll be looking to implement?
IDA has already kicked off initiatives to contribute to the positive development of the desalination industry, society and environment. For example, our Young Leaders Programme connects the next generation of desalination professionals, and offers opportunities for learning and sharing knowledge. IDA’s Environmental Task Force provides a framework for best practices and enhanced environmental responsibility.
During my tenure, I intend to put a lot emphasis on social responsibility in desalination. A great example was our ‘Desalination Industry Action for Good’ conference held this year in Portofino, Italy. IDA’s first conference dedicated to the topic of desalination and social responsibility raised $120,000 to help alleviate water shortages for residents of Ankililoaka in Madagascar. IDA’s contribution of $60,000 to this humanitarian project was matched by Rotary International, which supported the conference. The funds raised will used to improve the water availability in Ankililoaka from one well for every 1,800 inhabitants to one for every 500 inhabitants.
At Portofino, we also decided to set up a humanitarian outreach committee, headed by Guillaume Clairet and Dr Nobuya Fujiwara, to assist in the relief of water shortages in any natural disaster and also channel IDA members’ contributions in support humanitarian initiatives in this regard to the right people.
Promotion of energy-efficient desalination is also a cause dear to my heart. In fact, IDA will be working with the organisers of the sixth World Water Forum in Marseille next year to promote energy-efficient desalination. While desalination’s energy footprint has decreased significantly in the last 10 years, there is a lot scope for improvement. I would like to see IDA’s end-user members get more involved in the association’s activities. As the starting point for any desalination project, they have an influential role in driving the industry.
In your remarks after being declared as President, you said “as an industry, we need to focus on research, innovation and technical excellence.” Would you like to elaborate on this?
Encouraging innovation is high on my agenda. I am very proud of the fact that during my tenure as EDS President, we started the Sydney Loeb award for outstanding innovation to recognise and encourage innovation in desalination. With innovation as the change agent, the goals of energy reduction, sustainability and water costing are more easily achieved. What matters is putting the right incentive in place for all the participants so that we reach there.
Could you also identify the areas in desalination that are ripe for innovation?
I have always believed there is a solution for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. For the day after, I expect technologies like forward osmosis, renewable energy desalination and membrane distillation, though at their infancy today, to show the way. Again, we need to approach these technologies the same way the power sector approached the development of renewable energy. Twenty years ago, when fossil fuel and nuclear energy dominated, nobody would have believed that countries like Denmark or Germany would challenge that dependency by increasing the share of renewable energy in their energy mix. This was achieved as governments were willing to buy energy produced from renewable resources at a premium price, which in turn, incentivised developers, manufacturers, contractors and universities to find the right way to get into this market. Today, in some areas, the cost of renewable energy cost is comparable to traditional fossil fuel. I am sure that a similar approach, where are willing to pay a premium price for water produced through renewable energy, will encourage innovation in renewable desalination.
But the solution for tomorrow is, without doubt, energy efficiency. Most of the desalination plants in the Gulf region were set up 30 to 40 years ago. The ones still in operation have amortised their costs over a longer period, but the ideas behind their designs date back to the days when energy costs didn’t matter, and concepts like energy or CO2 footprints didn’t exist. Intervening in these plants and making them more energy-efficient is a huge opportunity. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are able to cut their energy consumption by at least 30% or more.
Could you give a practical or real-life example of this opportunity?
My company ILF has been involved in a project at DUBAL, which has launched an intensive campaign on energy efficiency. On a relatively small desalination capacity of 20MIGD, DUBAL has been able to save 3MW of specific power consumption by changing the impellers of the pump and retrofitting clever solutions to their system. Imagine if we could do the something similar to the installed capacity in the Gulf? We can certainly put more power on the grid if not avoid setting up new power plants. On the operational side, there are plenty of opportunities in terms of retrofits, optimisation or putting clever solutions on existing systems to make them run more efficiently. In the short term, we would be able to make desalination more energy-efficient.
When the price of natural gas was $0.5/MMBtu, there was little incentive become energy-efficient as the same called for a high initial investment, which pays off over the plant’s lifecycle. Some of the Independent Water and Power Plant (IWPP) projects that came up during this period too were guilty of neglecting energy efficiency thanks to cheap gas. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, it is imperative we price energy right. The second thing, and here I believe IDA could play a key role, is to engage the region’s policy makers to formulate policies that reward energy efficiency at the same or comparable price.
At the 2009 IDA World Congress in Dubai, there was a lot of buzz around Australia’s desalination agenda. Based on what you saw at the Perth congress, was the buzz was justified?
I think Australia has been a milestone for desalination because it is the first country in the world to take desalination on board for strategic security, passing over alternatives like long river diversion, construction of dykes and the like. Moreover, Australia is a highly environmentally-sensitive country. So Australia’s positive experience helped demonstrate that desalination is not an environmental catastrophe. The same pattern is now spreading to other countries in the world like China, Chile, Singapore and India.
In our part of the world, desalination has been mainly regarded as means to cope with the lack of storage water. But in countries like Chile, where water buffer is bigger, desalination is seen as strategic means to conserve that buffer, while producing more water and achieving strategic security, which is a completely new perspective.
Despite the Gulf region being the biggest desalination market, the water industry hasn’t grown into a dynamic and vibrant part of the region’s economy. Will this change and can IDA play a role in this regard?
I think the status quo is changing. For example, Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power is a major developer of desalination projects in the region with international ambitions. Local companies like WETICO and Metito are winning and successfully executing Engineering, Procurement & Construction (EPC) contracts. Of course, it would be great if we had more developers and EPC contractors emerging from the region.
The manufacturing side of the industry received a shot in the arm with Dow and Toyobo announcing manufacturing facilities in the region. Given the huge installed base of thermal desalination plants, it would also make business sense to set up a tube manufacturing facility in the area. In fact, the major cost component of tube extrusion is energy, which is relatively cheap in the region. But, what I want to see (and haven’t so far) is technology transfer. I would also like to see more local companies involved in the design aspect. While the design of desalination plants isn’t a rocket science, it isn’t simple either. Thermal desalination plants have their proprietary programmes, and one needs to have a sound grasp of thermal dynamics to be able to design these plants. In the case of RO, the design and integration skills are paramount. In fact, another initiative that I would like to bring forward during my tenure is the IDA Academy, which will conduct training programmes at all levels, from operators and designers to general management. I hope such training will encourage the design of new generation of desalination plants locally.
Do you have a personal philosophy regarding sustainability and environment?
Having grown up in the countryside, I am extremely fond of nature. When I see my children, I feel that the beauty we have inherited has to be passed to them, if not a better world. My personal view is that you cannot live a happy life if the environment around you is degraded. I decided to become chemical engineer when the first water treatment plants were designed, and that became a driving factor. At the age of 20, I joined the University of Genoa’s first course on biological treatment and activated biomass reactor, which was also the subject of my thesis. At that time, I wanted to purify all the rivers. I hope I can transmit some of that passion and drive to others. I believe we have a duty to leave a better world and a positive mark through our existence. As the president of IDA, I have the responsibility as well as opportunity to give this philosophy back to our members.
In your long career in the industry, are there any achievements you are particularly proud of?
I am very proud of our Portofino conference, which I co-chaired. There was also a project I did with Leon Awerbuch in Sharjah, where we took over a 5MIDG MSF desalination unit in Sharjah, tweaked around the design and squeezed out 7.5MIGD out of the 5MIGD unit. I also get a lot of satisfaction when my suggestions or recommendations make my customer’s life easier.