Nearly $2M headed to NELHA for solar thermal desalination plant

KAILUA-KONA — Nearly $2 million will be coming to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority as part of a U.S. Department of Energy program funding efforts to improve desalination technologies using solar power.

The Hawaii SunShot Desal Project, located at NELHA’s Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park in Kailua-Kona, will be one of 14 programs across the country to get money from the federal agency’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.

NELHA Executive Director Gregory Barbour said the Hawaii project will be the world’s largest forward osmosis, solar thermal desalination plant.

The effort, identified by the U.S. Department of Energy as the Hawaii SunShot Desal Project, is focused on advancing the viability of solar-powered forward osmosis by reducing the water’s unit cost 40 percent less than current state-of-the art technology.

The project will include commissioning an existing 2-megawatt solar thermal array at the HOST Park and connecting it to a 130,000-gallons-per-day forward osmosis system and delivering the desalinated water to Cyanotech, a commercial customer at the HOST Park, for use in the commercial aquaculture production of microalgae, said Barbour.

Barbour said the funds for the project won’t only get new desalination technology to market at a lower cost, it’ll also make use of the old Keahole Solar Power site and produce a “significant amount of water for agricultural use,” thereby freeing up the existing potable water supply for new projects at the facility.

“This is another example of the exceptional value that our support and investment into the critical infrastructure of this technology park in West Hawaii has generated,” said Gov. David Ige in a press release. “We will continue to pursue federal funding to allow NELHA to maintain its competitive advantage and give the community an asset found in very few places in the world.”

In total, the 14 projects across the nation will receive $21 million to innovate on solar-thermal desalination-related projects, said the Department of Energy, focusing on an array of challenges solar-powered desalination faces, including low-cost solar energy collection and storage as well as developing integrated solar-thermal desalination systems.

The projects are expected to last up to three years, the department said, and will be awarded as cooperative agreements that require a cost share of between 20 percent and 50 percent.

The Department of Energy noted that it’s not just municipal water production that can benefit from desalination technologies. Agriculture and industrial processes are also considered attractive applications, as is the purification of water produced as a result of energy development like oil and gas extraction.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz welcomed the announcement, saying the project combines the pressing issues of water shortages and climate change.

“With this funding, we have the chance to develop desalination methods that are sustainable and even profitable,” he said in a release. “I’m hopeful that this project will lead to more innovation in this space.”