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How automation and energy system digitalization reduce desalination plant operational costs

About the blog

Victor Santos
With a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering (majored in Automation, Electronics & Computers), in 2006 Victor Santos started work for Invensys in Spain (today Schneider Electric) as a Field Services engineer for Foxboro DCS and Triconex SIS.
  • How automation and energy system digitalization reduce desalination plant operational costs

Increasing population, urbanization, economic growth, and extreme weather conditions are driving water scarcity across the globe. Nations are working to address this crisis by investing in desalination plants that convert seawater into potable drinking water. During this process, surplus salts are removed from seawater or brackish water, making the water safe for industrial and residential use.

In times of global drought and water scarcity, desalination is a reliable technology. In some regions like the Middle East, desalination is an indispensable water supply source that populations and businesses count on for day-to-day survival. According to Research and Markets, the global desalination market is projected to grow to over $32 billion by 2027. This represents an 8.8% compound annual growth rate compared to 2021.

This growth is driven by technological innovation that enables a more sustainable approach to converting salt water to fresh water. For many years the industry has relied on thermal dissemination, which uses heat to evaporate the water (which requires large amounts of energy). Many plants are now converting to a new, more efficient, less costly, and more sustainable desalination system – a sophisticated water filtering system known as reverse osmosis.

Traditional desalination challenges limit operational efficiencies

The pressure continues to increase for desalination plant owners to streamline their operations more efficiently and sustainably. For example:

  • Regulators now issue contracts and operating permits stipulating that plants incur significant penalties if yearly, monthly, weekly, and even daily production targets are not achieved.
  • Process inefficiencies and energy waste drive production costs, forcing plants to charge consumers higher rates.
  • Lack of visibility to operational data makes it difficult for operators to maintain consistent uptime and limit unplanned stoppages.

Though complex, these challenges are not insurmountable, especially given the efficiency and energy savings potential enabled by reverse osmosis technology. 

Reverse osmosis uses pressure, not heat, to separate salt from the ocean water pumped into the plant, changing the design of a desalination plant to instead focus on circulating water through a series of membranes to remove salt and unwanted impurities. Within the new reverse osmosis plant designs, energy consumption can be monitored, controlled, and managed across all critical processes, resulting in massive efficiencies and more sustainable and resilient operations.

Digital monitoring, data analysis, and AI tools help increase efficiency

Companies like Schneider Electric are in a solid position to help desalination plant owners to convert to more efficient and sustainable operations.

We implement a 3-step sustainability approach to help water plants to reduce climate change impacts and to operate more efficiently:

  1. Strategize
  2. Digitize
  3. Decarbonize

Schneider Electric’s digitalization technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) innovations are being used to drive higher efficiencies in reverse osmosis desalination plants:

  • Robust control systems – Scalable and flexible systems control solutions can monitor and quickly adjust to changing seawater conditions (e.g., temperature, mineral content, biological content) through sensors and analysis software. Pumps can automatically turn off and on in response to changing conditions in a way that optimizes energy use and drives process efficiencies.
  • Virtual testing – Digital twin software tools now enable the simulation of control logic through detailed graphics in a virtual testing scenario. This allows plant engineers to identify opportunities for energy efficiency gains and provides insight into how downtime can be avoided.
  • Energy management – Intelligent energy management systems allow users to measure and manage energy across large desalination plants, reducing energy consumption by up to 30%.
  • Predictive maintenance – IoT-driven digitization enables predictive maintenance of power distribution equipment as embedded sensors capture warning signs of anomalies (like internal temperatures that exceed pre-set thresholds), thereby helping maintenance personnel address issues before they result in unanticipated downtime.

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