The desalination system, which started operating in the coastal area of Kiunga in July 2018, can create 19,800 gallons (75,000 liters) of fresh drinking water each day — enough for 25,000 people.
“You have to find a way to pull water out of the ocean in a scalable way, in a sustainable way,” Hayes Barnard, the president of GivePower said.
Barnard hopes to scale the system up and open similar facilities around the globe to provide clean, fresh water for those who struggle to get it.
Worldwide, one third of people don’t have access to safe drinking water, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). By 2025, half the world’s population is expected to live in water-stressed areas.
In 2013, Barnard started GivePower as a nonprofit branch of SolarCity, a solar-panel company that Elon Musk helped found in 2006. SolarCity merged with Tesla in 2016, but Barnard spun GivePower off as its own organization shortly before that.
The nonprofit mostly focuses on building solar-energy systems to provide electricity across the developing world. GivePower has installed solar grids in over 2,650 locations — primarily schools, medical clinics, and villages — across 17 countries, according to its website.
Desalination technology is not new, but it uses high-power pumps and is notoriously energy-intensive (and therefore expensive). The solar-microgrid system that GivePower has created, however, can produce almost 20,000 gallons of fresh drinking water each day. It relies on Tesla batteries for energy storage, and it uses two parallel pumps so that the system can run at all times, even if one pump requires maintenance.
Locals pay about a quarter of one cent for every four cups (one liter) of water.
As GivePower’s first project, the Kiunga facility cost $500,000 to build and took a month to construct. The organization hopes to generate $100,000 per year from the system, and use that to fund facilities in other places. Barnard’s goal is to cut the construction cost down to $100,000 per plant in the future.
“We hope that one of these systems funds another additional sister system every five years,” he said.
For now, the funding has come from corporate and private donations, along with a few corporate grants, including a $250,000 grant from Bank of America last year.
He added that the desalination plant has already spurred new economic activity in Kiunga. A group of women there started a freshwater clothes-washing business, Barnard said, and one man fills a tank with the water and drives it to nearby communities to sell.
“How awesome would it be if the women could make money off this water and their daughters are sitting in the classroom?” Barnard said.
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