Global environmental challenges
Pure water from solar power; will it catch on?
Remote villages in developing countries might benefit from these twin 40-ft long containers (left) — a water purification system driven by solar power — as a substitute for noisy diesel-powered generators, trucks bringing in water or people spending hours every day walking to fetch water.
That’s the hope of the makers, environmental technology group SwissINSO Holding Inc. The small company has recently won its first contracts to supply the systems to Algeria and Malaysia and is aiming to sell 42 units of what it calls the world’s “first high-volume, 100 percent-solar turnkey water purification system” in 2011.
The system, an interesting-sounding technology in a world where more than a billion people lack access to fresh water, could also have extra uses from disaster relief to construction sites or to helping armies stay healthy in remote regions.
Chief Executive Yves Ducommun (below right) says that the machines, housed in the two containers, can pump 100,000 litres of drinking water per day for 20 years at a price of less than $0.03 per litre, including running costs. The system costs between $800,000 and $1.2 million up front, depending on factors such as how many solar panels are needed to drive the purification, which filters out dirt and toxins, or salt from seawater, through a membrane.
That is a lot of money for a village in sub-Saharan Africa – but water is often a huge cost over 20 years and governments or aid agencies might be interested: the makers reckon it supplies enough water for about 5,000 people. Freeing people from walking miles to collect water allows them to do other things, like work or study.
“It’s a cost, but if you think of the cost of carrying water by tanker or truck to remote places, or a unit powered by diesel you are in a better position with our system,” Ducommun told me. And climate change may make water supplies less predictable in coming decades with effects such as floods, heatwaves, drought and desertification.
It’s a bit like long-life lightbulbs: the up-front costs are higher but they last far longer: but it’s hard to convince people with the counter-intuitive idea of saving money by spending more now. Investors have not flocked to the idea — the rarely traded shares fell after a major investor pulled out last year, Ducommun said. They last traded at $0.42 against a high of $1.75 in early 2010, giving the company a market capitalisation of about $30 million.
Ducommun said the company, which also makes solar-collector glass facade panels to heat and cool buildings, is in talks about sales of the water purification units in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Australia.
(Photos: courtesy of SwissINSO)