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"ACCIONA can provide the most efficient & sustainable water security solution in a one-stop shop"

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ACCIONA, a global leader in sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy solutions, opened its first Middle East office in Dubai in 2008. It has since then developed its business activities throughout the Gulf region and other Arab countries, committed to technical excellence and creating a positive impact.

Companies like ACCIONA are having a crucial role in shaping a more sustainable water future in the Middle East. With extensive experience in the Middle East region, Julio de la Rosa, Business Development Director for the Middle East at ACCIONA's water business, has played a key role in driving ACCIONA's business growth and establishing strategic partnerships in the region. In this interview, we hear about the company's presence in the region and its contribution to the development of sustainable desalination solutions. 

Published in SWM Bimonthly 18 - June 2023
SWM Bimonthly 18

Could you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at ACCIONA?

First of all, thank you very much for this opportunity and, of course, I will be happy to explain. My professional career began a little over 23 years ago with the drafting of agricultural and forestry infrastructure projects, which allowed me a passionate contact with nature and to understand the importance of preserving the environment. From there I moved on to the world of construction, participating in the construction of a clarification tank in Villa Azul, a water treatment plant that supplies my hometown, Córdoba, in Spain. Later I continued with the execution of different supply and sanitation networks in the same city. From there I jumped to the department in charge of international tenders for all types of water infrastructure, and about 12 years ago I relocated to the United Arab Emirates to lead the Energy and Water Business Development for the Middle East of a Spanish multinational company. In 2016 I joined the Acciona family in the Dubai office to assist in the Business Development of the Water Division for the Middle East, helping with the implementation of the Strategic Development Plan and securing new projects for the company. A little over a year and a half ago I moved to Saudi Arabia where the Water Division has been headquartered for the region since then, continuing with Business Development and all that this entails in terms of supporting the different departments, liaising with clients and partners and identifying new healthy opportunities of interest to the Company in terms of investment, execution and operation.

  • The integration of renewable energies in water infrastructure is a priority, and sustainable storage batteries can be a turning point

What is ACCIONA's strategy in the Middle East and how has it evolved over the years?

ACCIONA's strategy in the Middle East is to continue to consolidate its leadership position in the water infrastructure sector, but with a broader focus on at least two aspects.

First, the generation of a positive impact on society and the environment as determined by our Sustainability Master Plan 2025. We want ACCIONA to be an attractive place for people to work and evolve as professionals; the company is basically a diversity of people with their knowledge and motivations. We will continue to provide our clients with sustainable technology solutions to guarantee the water supply with the greatest efficiency and lowest possible impact. We will continue to share knowledge and increase the integration of a local component in all phases; to do this, we will establish collaboration agreements at all levels with local entities. We will strengthen the concept of circular economy, where I think that promoting wastewater reuse and reducing water losses from generation to final supply is key.

Shuqaiq 3 is the first public-private collaboration reference for ACCIONA in the region, for the Water Division and also for the Group

A second aspect is to continue to strengthen the importance of moving forward on a joint approach to the water-energy nexus since those two resources depend on each other to be produced. In this regard, the integration of renewable energies in all water infrastructure continues to be a priority, and the availability of sustainable storage batteries at a reasonable cost can be a radical turning point on the horizon. ACCIONA has a unique position worldwide to work on this nexus, having engineering, investment, execution, operation and maintenance and R&D and innovation capabilities in both areas; this leadership capacity along the entire value chain of water and renewable energy projects makes us proud and humbly able to say that we occupy a clear leadership position not only in the Middle East, but worldwide. It is our goal to continue to bring positive value to our clients and society at large from this leadership position.

Our personnel and the strong belief in these values of positivity concerning people and the environment are what have helped ACCIONA's progress in the region over the last 15 years from being a region where we were newcomers to being a key region for us today, especially for the Water Division.

ACCIONA is a leader in desalination using reverse osmosis and has several emblematic desalination projects in the Middle East such as Al Khobar II, Jubail 3B or Shuqaiq 3 in Saudi Arabia. What would you highlight about them?

Those three projects are really interesting because although they are similar, it is easy for me to identify something unique about each of them.

ACCIONA develops plants with RO technology, the desalination technology with the highest efficiency and lowest possible carbon footprint

Concerning Khobar II, I would highlight that together with its first phase, they add up to a total of 840,000 m3/d of drinking water produced, equivalent to supplying the daily needs of more than 3.3 million people, making it the largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in Saudi Arabia and one of the largest in the Middle East.

In the case of Jubail 3B, I would highlight that it is a facility that highlights our ability to provide sustainable solutions to meet the needs of our clients, as it is a plant that greatly reinforces the desalination-solar concept, since its 575,000 m3/d capacity is largely powered by a 62 MW photovoltaic solar plant also executed by ACCIONA, which drastically reduces the carbon footprint of this desalination plant.

In the case of Shuqaiq 3, this is the first public-private collaboration reference for ACCIONA in the region, not only for the Water Division but also for the Group, and also shows how ACCIONA may be the only company in the region currently capable of offering our clients this "one-stop shop" when undertaking this kind of project, as we are present as an investor, exclusive constructor and leading the operation and maintenance.

In a region with severe water scarcity and where the demand for desalinated water is growing in response to climate change and population growth, what can ACCIONA contribute to improving water security?

ACCIONA can provide the most efficient and sustainable solution possible in a one-stop shop not only for the process side but also for energy supply and storage, basically, an optimal and integrated sustainable solution. If you ask me right now for another company capable of offering the same, you put me in a bind because I wouldn't know one.

Our position as technology leaders in the water and renewable energy sector, together with the strong environmental, social and governance principles that permeate each and every one of our actions, and our belief that we must put people first guiding our strategy, are making us aware of our leading position, from which we can fully meet the needs of our clients.

That is why ACCIONA only develops plants with reverse osmosis technology, the desalination technology with the highest efficiency and lowest possible carbon footprint, clearly superior in both aspects when compared with traditional thermal desalination technologies. This, together with ACCIONA's global leadership in renewable energies and our ability to integrate both aspects from a project’s initial design to execution, operation and learning from lessons to support continuous improvement, puts us at the forefront as providers of world-class sustainable water security solutions.

What is the current role of reverse osmosis desalination in the Middle East, and what do you see as its future in the region?

In a country where there is an almost absolute shortage of renewable freshwater resources, it is inevitable to look to the sea to guarantee the security of the supply of drinking water in sufficient quantity and quality for the population. In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, concern for responsible resource use and lowering the carbon footprint have been key for a while now for the promotion and development of any technology. 

In the Middle East, concerns for responsible resource use and lowering the carbon footprint have been key for technology development

That is why all new desalination plants in the region are being built using reverse osmosis technology and there are even very ambitious plans throughout the region to decommission thermal desalination plants, even before they reach the end of their useful life, due to several factors. From a purely economic point of view, the present value of decommissioning these old technologies and replacing them with more efficient reverse osmosis is positive given the savings it generates; also, from an environmental point of view, the carbon footprint is significantly improved. In addition, it allows decoupling water and energy generation which results in savings and environmental benefits; it is unrealistic to think that water and energy demands are coupled at any time of the year and of the day; decoupling them leads to more efficient and sustainable operation of water and energy production. Therefore, the future of reverse osmosis in the region, and in general, is a bright one, and this technology is set for further growth.

  • The integration of digital solutions is one of the pillars of ACCIONA's projects in the Middle East, and one of our competitive advantages
  • Khobar's digital twin made possible to perform tasks remotely and do simulations that led to a successful start-up amid the pandemic

Digital solutions are one of the fastest-growing areas in the water industry. To what extent are they being integrated into ACCIONA's projects in the Middle East?

The integration of digital solutions is one of the pillars of ACCIONA's projects in the Middle East, as well as one of our competitive advantages and therefore a differentiating element.

The rapid integration of digital solutions is being demanded by the different actors involved ­- clients, private companies and end users - at the same time. One of the main advantages of this uptake is a radical shift from a reactive to a proactive attitude. It is a matter of anticipating any potential problems, of being able to transform data into valuable insights in order to make the best design, construction and operation decisions. This way, we define an integrated cycle of lessons learned that leads to the continuous improvement of our plants and networks, providing our clients and society with an ideal solution in all areas, including environmental aspects.

Likewise, the integration of new technologies is allowing clients and end users to have more fluid and efficient communication when interacting, saving resources, mainly time, defining clear parameters for service improvement, giving visibility to the important measures adopted to improve the service, and defining a direct channel through which to present new service demands to be studied and met.

All of this has been implemented for some time now in all the projects that ACCIONA is designing, executing and operating in the Middle East.

What kind of innovative technologies are you implementing in your Middle East projects and what are their main benefits?

There are many, but if I have to highlight one in the specific case of the Middle East I would say the digital twin in our Khobar I desalination plant, because of what it involves, when it had to be implemented and what it entailed.

A digital twin is an exact virtual replica of an asset, either a specific piece of equipment or an entire desalination plant as in this case. This replica is fed with computerised design, mathematical models related to processes and the mechanical-electrical performance of equipment, based on the available information of already implemented plants, and on operation methodologies that help to define the mathematical algorithms that determine the behaviour of the plant; this is an in-depth multidisciplinary endeavour. Back in April 2020, when we were all in the midst of perhaps the most complicated situation in the last 70 years, trying to understand what a worldwide pandemic was and its implications, with the uncertainty that this entailed, at that very moment, ACCIONA had to commission this desalination plant, urgently needed by our client, even more so because of the health emergency. This type of commissioning is a job with high technical and knowledge requirements: think of hundreds of pieces of equipment, and thousands of signals that have to be put into operation and aligned correctly. Any commissioning involves the mobilisation of a significant number of people to the plant, which was unthinkable in the mid-2020s, with international flights almost non-existent. It was only thanks to the development of Khobar's digital twin that it was possible to both increase the tasks that could be performed remotely and simulate in advance the activities to be carried out on-site, which significantly minimised the number of personnel to be mobilised and finally led to a successful start-up. We believe this milestone was possible, although not only, mainly thanks to the high qualifications of ACCIONA's personnel.

In addition, we would like to mention BIONS, which is our intelligent cloud-based data platform where source data is stored and, by applying Big Data, IoT and Artificial Intelligence, is transformed into insights and subsequently into effective joint decisions. And finally, I must highlight CECOA, which is our Water Control Center, where data from our plants is centralised worldwide and the aforementioned technologies are applied to gain knowledge, control and optimise the operation and maintenance of our plants.

How does ACCIONA collaborate with governments in the Middle East to promote the transition to a more sustainable energy model, develop sustainable desalination solutions and guarantee long-term water supply?

We collaborate by maintaining a very close and constant contact through which we transmit ACCIONA's commitment to promote and provide only the most efficient and sustainable technological solutions as stated in our Sustainability Master Plan 2025 with a five-year horizon.

The implementation of renewable energies in each and every one of the plants we develop, assessing the implementation of these energy sources in existing infrastructure, together with the optimisation of reagent use and minimisation of the waste generated are some of the aspects that we develop together with our clients, in order to minimise the carbon footprint of our infrastructure while providing a realistic and efficient solution.

An objective of our collaboration with governments is to raise awareness of responsible resource use on the path towards decarbonisation

ACCIONA also participates actively in all fora and events not only related to water, but also to investment, the definition of regulatory frameworks and local content, contributing our experiences and explaining our medium- to long-term vision on the path to ensuring a resilient and reliable water supply.

One of the objectives we set ourselves with this collaboration with the governments of the Middle East is to promote social awareness of the importance of the responsible use of resources on the path towards decarbonisation. In the specific case of Saudi Arabia, where the goal is to be carbon neutral by 2060, companies like ACCIONA – with a positive impact on sustainable and social development by putting people at the centre of the organisation – undoubtedly generate an added value that is positively received and appreciated. Increasing social awareness and motivation helps ensure water security by highlighting the importance of resources, their proper use, conservation and enhancement.

Can you tell us about the role of public-private partnerships in the water and sanitation sector in the Middle East, and the prospects for the future?

The role of public-private partnerships in the water and sanitation sector in the Middle East has grown exponentially in recent years.

Although this collaboration model has existed for decades, it is true that it coexisted in a certain balance with other models for the development of water infrastructure. However, in the last decade, it has gradually become the predominant model. Within this model of collaboration, different structures have been established with greater or lesser involvement of public parties. For example, at the level of the project company in charge of the investment, there is a wide range of options: the public party may not participate, or, in some cases, it has a majority stake, reaching up to 60%. Something similar happens concerning the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the asset, but project execution is still exclusively done by the private party.

The role of public-private partnerships in the water and sanitation sector in the Middle East has grown exponentially in recent years

One of the reasons for the predominance of this model is that it can be seen as a way of aligning interests in the asset to be developed with a long-term vision, ensuring that the asset is developed with the joint objective of implementing the most efficient and sustainable technologies both concerning construction and O&M, in a framework of continuous improvement in the long term, helping to provide the best possible final service. Certainly, for this model to continue to be the predominant one, it must continue to have a government guarantee that covers the investment, and it is necessary to continue to advance a regulatory framework that provides reassurance to both private companies and the financial sector as it has done so far, as well as the general stability of the region.

In the future, this model will undoubtedly continue to be the predominant one and may even continue to take steps forward. Possibly the next step will be to see more and more the implementation of a concession model of private-public utilities in the region, until now predominantly public, with the objective of improving the services provided to citizens while at the same time improving the efficiency and sustainability of infrastructure. In this regard, programmes such as the ¨National Water Strategy 2030¨ and ¨Vision 2030¨ in the case of Saudi Arabia are fully aligned with ACCIONA's Sustainability Master Plan, seeking a positive impact on people and the environment, with one of its pillars being the strengthening of this public-private collaboration.