Project Profile: Al Khobar 1 SWRO desalination plant

Angitha Pradeep speaks with Ignacio Lobo, project director, ACCIONA, about how one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest reverse osmosis desalination plants was delivered on time, despite the unprecedented challenges of 2020

Saudi Arabia has a population of 33.4 million people and is the world’s third-largest per capita consumer of water, behind the United States and Canada. As part of its Vision 2030 programme, the Kingdom has introduced measures to rationalise water consumption, intending to achieve 24% reduction in consumption by 2021, and 43% by the end of this decade.

The average availability of water worldwide is 7453 cubic metres per capita per year, while in the Middle East this figure falls to 736 cubic metres, according to an AQUASTAT report. ACCIONA’s latest Sustainability Report notes that the demand for desalinated water is being driven by climate change and population growth in the Middle East.

Additionally, desalinated water production in the region will be 13 times higher in 2040 than it was in 2014. One of the most effective ways of dealing with this problem is to focus on the fact that 98% of Earth’s water is saltwater and to take advantage of this by turning it into clean and ready-to-drink water, experts say.

“Desalination, especially desalination by reverse osmosis (RO) makes this possible and is one of the most sustainable solutions that are available in the market,” says Ignacio Lobo, project director at ACCIONA, the Spanish firm which will supply Saudi Arabia with 1.8 million cubic metres of desalinated water per day with the completion of its latest project in the Kingdom.

“The RO desalination of 1,000 litres of water uses the same amount of energy as running an air conditioning system in a house for one hour or buying a five-litre bottle of water from a supermarket,” says Lobo, adding that it also produces 6.5 times fewer CO₂ emissions than conventional desalination technology.

In line with this, ACCIONA recently announced the completion of its Al Khobar 1 (AK1) seawater desalination reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant which is producing 210,000 cubic metres of drinking water per day – well beyond its nominal capacity – since 26 December 2020.

The Spanish firm says that the highly energy-efficient plant is a key water sector modernisation project carried out by the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC).

With the AK1 plant set to be one of the largest desalination plants in Saudi Arabia, Big Project ME spoke with Lobo, to understand how the project was delivered on time, despite the unprecedented challenges encountered along the way.

“SWCC awarded the project to ACCIONA in May 2018; our scope of work being the design and construction of the plant on the coast of Dharan, located about 400 km from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The EPC contract for the plant was valued at more than $243 million, and the plant will be operated by ACCIONA during the first year of production. Furthermore, the company will also train SWCC’s operations and maintenance team, who will undertake full responsibilities after the one-year period.

“The desalination plant will provide 100 million litres of potable water per day to Saudi Aramco, whereas the remaining will be used by the community of Dammam, Dhahran and Al Khobar, equivalent to a population of 350,000.”

The project will also open many opportunities for the local community in terms of jobs and businesses, says Lobo, referencing their exposure to training with advanced technologies.

Elaborating on the project’s execution phase, Lobo says that most of 2018 involved activities such as mobilising project teams, erecting site facilities, developing process engineering and detailed civil engineering, and improving the ground to bear the load of the building, among others. He stresses that these preliminary activities were executed within the least possible time-period, adding that the concrete pouring started in January 2019.

“Between January and October 2019, 63,000 cubic metres of concrete was poured out of the 71,000-total figure, while the project also focused on civil works. Meanwhile, marine works were executed in parallel by an independent team responsible for welding and launching three high-density polyethene (HDPE) intake pipes to the sea. The intake pipes measured ØD 2000 mm and 2.1 km long while the outfall line was ØD 1800 mm and 800 m long. The team was also involved with pre-assembling and laying three risers on the seabed for the water intake.”

Lobo mentions that ACCIONA’s procurement and logistics team, located in Spain and Dubai coordinated the fabrication and shipment of equipment, simultaneously in 2019. He adds that piping, mechanical, and electrical installations started in December 2019 – overlapping with the last civil works – extending until the summer of 2020.

“Of course, there was some overlapping between MEP installations and commissioning,” remarks Lobo, meanwhile commenting that during Ramadan and the summer of 2019, most construction activities were shifted to the night. He confirms that the day shift had 300 members, while the night shift had 800 members, to mitigate the impact of fasting and the terrible summer heat.

“Then, the year 2020 burst into the scene, and COVID-19 imposed its own unpredictable rules!” he states, adding that the project did not stop during the pandemic except during April and May when the Saudi government-imposed curfews which limited the attendance of workers to the site. He observes that they mitigated damages by following general rules such as limiting the number of attendants to progress meetings and resorting to video-conferencing to communicate with teams located outside the Kingdom.

“Perhaps,” Lobo says, “The major impact of COVID-19 during the project was the non-availability of process equipment vendors’ foreign experts during critical stages of construction and commissioning, due to travel restrictions. However, we alleviated those issues by coordinating with local supervisors and their agents of those companies.”

He further adds that another challenge that had to be addressed due to COVID-19 was the fabrication and delivery of glass-reinforced pipe spools (2,800 spools of different diameters and lengths) due to its limited availability from local vendors. He says that this was due to several projects which were under construction in the country and contesting for the same resources.

On a positive note, Lobo announces that the coordination between the client – who had a strong presence at the site –, the consultant, and ACCIONA’s team was excellent, and a critical factor in the success of the project.

“The process of the commissioning the plant started a few months ago; the main switchgear was energised on 11 August 2020 and the first cubic meter of water was produced on 12 September 2020,” notes Lobo, adding that the plant consists of 21 various-sized process buildings.

This is the first time that ACCIONA’s team in Madrid had tested and commissioned a desalination plan using digital twin technology, which was created by Siemens in collaboration with ACCIONA.

This allowed the plant to be commissioned on schedule despite travel restrictions, and access to functions, he adds.

“The system was developed at CECOA (ACCIONA’s water control centre) and adopted the same cybersecurity standards and communication channels used at other connected plants. The digital twin used advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence to stimulate the field equipment and the process of the entire plant, in real-time.”

“This enabled us to test the operational data in the process control system before its implementation, and made the process validation simpler, which meant that we could try various system operation and optimisation options,” he says.

“The start-up of desalination plants in the future will be undertaken by local and remote teams working together, thanks to technologies such as digital twins. Due to the pandemic, it is very likely that desalination plants coming on stream next year will be commissioned this way,” adds the project director.

He notes that the design of AK1 leverages on ACCIONA’s long experience with RO desalination plants, and that its efficiency has improved over the years. He adds that the power consumption at the AK1 plant is below 4kWh per cubic metres- a figure that was difficult to imagine a few years ago.

SWCC has awarded ACCIONA and its Saudi-based partner RTCC, the design and construction of their fifth desalination plant, Shuqaiq SWRO 1, in the country. The plant, evidently, equipped with RO technology will have a daily capacity of 400,000 cubic metres, and is expected to offset water shortages in south-west Saudi Arabia by providing a new source of potable water.

Lobo summarises, “Once this [Shuqaiq 1] project is completed, around 1.8 million cubic metres of desalinated water will be supplied by ACCIONA in Saudi Arabia per day through reverse osmosis, consolidating this as the most efficient and sustainable technology with the smallest carbon footprint.”

“As part of ACCIONA’s commitment to innovation, our Water Technology Centre located in Barcelona, Spain, has different pilot plants as well as two laboratories with the most sophisticated equipment for modern analysis and characterisation techniques. Here is where we create the necessary solutions to face the challenges of water shortages and sanitation problems around the globe.”

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