MIT Energy Initiative

Combined energy and water system could provide for millions

Economically bringing fresh water and large-scale renewable energy storage to drought-stricken coastal regions around the world

Kelley Travers March 28, 2017 MITEI

Many highly-populated coastal regions around the globe suffer from severe drought conditions. In an effort to deliver fresh water to these regions while also considering how to produce it efficiently using clean energy resources, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Hawaii has created a detailed analysis of a symbiotic system that combines a pumped hydropower energy storage system and reverse osmosis desalination plant to meet both of these needs in one large-scale engineering project. The researchers, who have shared their findings in a paper published in Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, say this kind of combined system could ultimately lead to cost savings, revenues, and job opportunities.

The basic idea to use a hydropower system to also support a reverse osmosis desalination plant was first proposed two decades ago by Professor Masahiro Murakami of Kochi University of Technology, but was never developed in detail.

“Back then renewables were too expensive and oil was too cheap,” says the paper’s co-author Alexander Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, “there was not the extreme need and sense of urgency that there is now with climate change, increasing populations and waves of refugees fleeing drought and war-torn regions.”

Recognizing the potential of such a concept now, Slocum and his co-authors—Maha Haji, Sasan Ghaemsaidi, and Marco Ferrara of MIT; and A Zachary Trimble of the University of Hawaii—developed a detailed engineering, geographic, and economic model to explore the size and costs of such a system and enable further analysis to evaluate its feasibility at any given site around the world.

A joint team of American, Israeli, and Jordanian students worked together to study possible IPHRO system site locations around the world and to tackle this large-scale engineering project. Photo courtesy of Alexander Slocum.

Typically, energy and water systems are considered separately, but combining the two has the potential to increase efficiency and reduce capital costs. Termed an “Integrated Pumped Hydro Reverse Osmosis (IPHRO) system,” this approach uses a lined reservoir placed in high mountains near a coastal region to store sea water pumped up to it using excess power from renewable energy sources or nuclear power stations. When energy is needed by the electric grid, water flows downhill to generate hydroelectric power. With a reservoir elevation greater than 500 meters, the pressure is great enough to also supply a reverse osmosis plant and thus eliminates the need for separate pumps. An additional benefit is that the amount of water typically used to generate power is about 20 times the amount needed for creating fresh water, so the brine outflow from the reverse osmosis plant can be greatly diluted by the water flowing through the hydroelectric turbines before it discharges back into the ocean, which reduces reverse osmosis outflow system costs.

As part of their research, Slocum’s team has formulated an algorithm that weighs a location’s distance from the ocean and mountain height to explore areas around the world where IPHRO systems might be located. Additionally, they have identified possible IPHRO system locations with the potential for providing power and water—based on an American lifestyle of 50 kilowatt-hours per day of energy consumption and 500 liters of fresh water per day—to serve one million people. In this scenario, a reservoir at 500 meters height would only need to be one square kilometer in size and 30 meters deep.

Their analysis determined that in Southern California, all power and water needs can actually be met for 28 million. An IPHRO system could be located in the mountains along the California coast or in Tijuana, Mexico, and would additionally provide long-term construction and renewable energy systems jobs for tens of thousands of people. Findings show that to build this system, the cost would be between $5,000 and $10,000 per person served. This would cover the cost of all elements of the system, including the renewable energy sources, the hydropower system, and the reverse osmosis system, to provide each person with all necessary renewable electric power and fresh water.

Working with colleagues in Israel and Jordan under the auspices of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, the team has studied possible sites in the Middle East in detail, as abundant fresh water and continuous renewable energy could be key elements in helping to bring stability to the region. An IPHRO system could potentially form the foundation for stable economic growth, providing local jobs and trade opportunities; and as hypothesized in Slocum’s article, IPHRO systems could possibly help mitigate migration issues as a direct result of these opportunities.

MIT Professor Alexander Slocum (second from right) pictured with Israeli colleagues Professor Abraham Kribus, Tel Aviv University; Professor Clive Lipchin, Director, Center for Transboundary Water Management, Arava Institute for Environmental Studies; and Professor Jacob Karni, Weizmann Institute of Science. Photo courtesy of Alexander Slocum.

“Considering the cost per refugee in Europe is about 25,000 euros per year and it takes several years for a refugee to be assimilated, an IPHRO system that is built in the Middle East to anchor a new community and trading partner for the European Union might be a very good option for the world to consider,” says Slocum. “If we create a sustainable system that provides clean power, water, and jobs for people, then people will create new opportunities for themselves where they actually want to live, and the world can become a much nicer place.”

This work is now available as an open access article on ScienceDirect, thanks to a grant by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation through the MIT Energy Initiative, which also supported the class from which this material originated. The class has also been partially supported by MISTI and the cooperative agreement between the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and MIT.

Press Inquiries

Primary contact:

Secondary contact: Francesca McCaffrey

Other inquiries: MITEI Communications


Subscribe to energy news and events at MIT. Here’s an example of what you’ll receive.