The announcement of the plans to develop these new desalination plants within Spain has been a boon for desalination companies. Most also specialize in other forms of water treatment, such as wastewater treatment or water purification. But the real prize for many of these companies, the way they have been able to become significant players on the international market, has been their experience with desalination.
"We have been working for the past 30 years on all these desalination plants," says Jose Antonio Medina, president of the International Desalination Association and head of the Spanish Desalination and Reutilization Association. "That gave Spanish companies the necessary experience with both building and operating plants. At the moment Spain has the highest number of companies in the world with this level of technology and experience in desalination."
These companies include such names as Pridesa, Inima, Befesa, Cadagua, Acciona Agua, Sadyt, Infilco, Aqualia, Cobra, Grupo Seta, and IsoluxCorsan Corvian. Degremont, a French multinational company, has a strong desalination sector made up almost entirely of Spaniards.
Nearly all of these companies got their feet wet in the waters off the coast of the Canary Islands. In the portfolio that companies put forth to show their skill and experience, many point to one of the many ground-breaking plants on the Canary Islands. One plant was the first in Europe, another the first large-scale RO plant in Europe, another the first in Europe to take advantage of a new desalination membrane, still another the first to use new energy recovery systems to dramatically reduce energy needs.
"One of the early plants, it was a very complicated plant to operate," says Medina. "I worked at that plant from the beginning. It has been like the university of reverse osmosis for us."
At times today the companies are competitors when submitting bids for new plants, whether for individual stages, such as the design, or for the plant's building and operation. At times the companies work in various consortia. The Spanish government, in an effort to support a variety of Spanish companies, divided the development of the landmark Carboneras plant. Separate bids were taken for the design and engineering, construction, and operation of the plant. At the end, Inima worked out the engineering and design details. A consortium of Acciona Agua, Degremont, Befesa, and OHL, Inima's parent company, undertook the construction. Today, Inima operates the plant.
This experience with different aspects of plant development and management and with a wide variety of plants is the key to the companies' competitiveness, according to representatives. "Each plant is different," says Ignacio Zuñiga, international business development manager of Cadagua. "There are different conditions in different oceans. And the conditions of the intake of the plant or the level of pollution in the area, all of these affect the pretreatment of the water and the design of the entire plant."
Representatives of each company, in competing against the others in the market, point to specific company strengths. Most are backed by large construction groups or other financially secure, multinational companies that provide the needed resources and stability for investments in this sector. All have years of experience working in Spain.
Officials at Befesa, part of the Abengoa Group, say one key to their advantage has been their willingness to take a chance in newer, financially riskier markets around the word. Befesa was one of the first Spanish companies operating in Algeria and is now building the first desalination plant in India.
"This is our philosophy—when we start work in a country, we do so because we have a strategy to be working in that country," says Guillermo Bravo, CEO of Befesa. "We now have three plants in Algeria, and we plan to develop the market in India."
Befesa is also conducting research on the possibility of reusing desalination membranes for other purposes after replacement, thus reducing the overall cost of the facility.
Inima, which has dozens of desalination plants in Spain and around the world, points to their decades of experience, the financial backing of the international construction company OHL, and their ability to work in all aspects of water treatment. And Aqualia is building on their experience in Spain with two major projects in Algeria to be completed by 2011, which will supply a total of 300,000 cubic meters of water per day.
Not only are Spanish companies building new plants, but in the U. S. one Spanish firm is attempting to fix an existing plant. The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant, the first large American seawater desalination plant, originally begun in 1999, has been inundated with problems from the beginning, due in part to challenges with construction, management, and pretreatment of the seawater. Acciona Agua, a Spanish company owned by the group Acciona, won a contract, in partnership with American Water, to take over the plant, which began operations in 2008.
Julio Zorrilla, international construction director of Acciona Agua, admits that rehabilitating an existing plant is much more challenging than building one from scratch. "We thought it was a huge opportunity to set up a good precedent for seawater desalination in the American market," says Zorilla, "with ourselves as the main protagonist."