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Finnish innovators taste success with the Sun

The company has teamed up with World Vision to bring clean water to the Kenyan countryside.Adobe

Over two billion people worldwide use a contaminated source for their drinking water. It is a striking statistic, and one Finnish cleantech company Solar Water Solutions believes it can help to change.

Water is essential for life, but access to clean water is far from guaranteed. In many places globally, water is collected directly from rivers, rainwater pools and the sea. The trouble is these water sources often contain impurities and salt, making waterborne illnesses a widespread problem.

Although various water treatment technologies exist, they can be expensive and off-limits to remote areas outside electricity grids. This is where Espoo-based Solar Water Solutions comes in. The company has combined solar power with the reverse osmosis method to create a low-cost, low-emission technology for purifying contaminated water.

“In many of these areas, clean water is produced with the same reverse osmosis method but is powered by diesel generators,” explains CEO Antti Pohjola. “It is a very energy-intensive process, so the running costs are high. We use free solar energy and produce no emissions.”

“We want to get our operations in Kenya rolling and then expand to nearby areas,” says Antti Pohjola. Image: Solar Water Solutions

Solar Water Solutions claims it can reduce the operating costs of water treatment by up to 90 per cent. This has the potential to bring clean water within reach of the world’s most impoverished areas, but also to small islands, remote holiday resorts, farms and other locations where energy sources are scarce. The only thing required is the Sun.

Overcoming clouds

Solar Water Solutions was founded in 2015 based on an idea from Pohjola’s father, Heikki Pohjola. He discovered a way to harness solar energy for water purification without the need for expensive batteries or energy storage. Exactly how this works is a company secret, but Pohjola says it solves the problem of spikes in solar power, ensuring the system works smoothly even on cloudier days.

“If we would need to use batteries the costs would multiply, which wouldn’t be economically viable,” he stresses.

The company’s technology was developed further in collaboration with Aalto University in Finland, before a commercial launch in 2017. Now Solar Water Solutions produces mobile water treatment units in different sizes, from single-family systems all the way to covering the needs of a small village.

Fountain of inspiration: half of the world’s population is predicted to be living in water-stressed areas by 2040.

The units are manufactured in Finland and exported in co-operation with local partners.

The company’s latest milestone was reached in Africa. Previously it had delivered small household devices to the continent, but since early 2018 its water treatment unit has produced clean water for an entire village community in the Kenyan countryside. The project is part of the company’s collaboration with the aid organisation World Vision.

“It is our first big unit in Africa,” Pohjola enthuses. “It also one of the very first solar energy powered water treatment units in the whole of Africa.”

Dry as a desert

While Africa’s off-grid areas are Solar Water Solutions’ primary focus for now, the company believes its technology has global pull – notably for the notoriously dry Middle East. In 2017, the company set up a test facility in Abu Dhabi, where its technology is used to desalinate seawater.

“The United Arab Emirates is an arid country. Up to 80 per cent of its clean water is produced from seawater using very energy intensive processes,” Pohjola explains. “This is why the region leads the development of new solar-powered systems for treating salt water. We want to be close to this development.”

Solar Water Solutions’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year it placed third in the UAE’s Global Water Awards, from 138 projects globally. The number of entrants also signals the size of the problem the company is addressing, and it is only expected to grow.

“The estimate is close to half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2040,” Pohjala says. “We can produce clean water locally and with free solar energy. The market for these kinds of technologies is huge.”

Solar Water Solutions’ mobile desalination and water treatment units come in various sizes, from household devices all the way to covering the needs of entire hospitals or holiday resorts. Image: Solar Water Solutions
By: Eeva Haaramo