Innovation and technology

ACWA Power’s world class ingenuity

Thomas Altmann
Executive Vice-President, Innovation and New Technology

Since the inception of ACWA Power, curiosity, ingenuity and risk-taking have been intrinsic to the Company’s culture and part of the fabric of the organisation. Innovation has always been a pervasive and informal part of everyday life and has contributed significantly to the growth and success of the Company.

It is a very exciting time for us because we are crystallising our innovation processes and we are seeing positive results in terms of the increasing number of our patent applications, new collaborations, scientific publication, bid wins, and most notably, a dramatic impact on tariffs.

We are very much an “open” rather than “closed” innovation company; our strategy is to gain access to the best technical knowledge and share it. Closed innovators relying on historic patent protection can go into decline through stagnation whereas our open approach means that we have a continuous flow of innovation that benefits all our stakeholders.

Open innovators like ACWA Power can thrive so long as they have the capacity to generate fresh ideas on a continuous basis and have the ability to implement ideas speedily

In a recent issue by Forbes Middle East, ACWA Power has been listed among the ten most innovative companies in Saudi Arabia, which is a testament to our commitment to innovation and contribution to the innovation ecosystem (iEcosystem).

Our innovation governance

Essentially, our people have not changed; they are constantly pursuing new solutions that have a positive impact on our bidding and operations. What is new is that we now have a dedicated central team, an Innovation Department, with a defined annual plan and budget, and an agreed structure, technology innovation roadmap and methodology for stimulating, capturing and rolling out our innovations. Furthermore, we have introduced a degree of institutionalisation without stifling independence of mind and creativity.

The new Innovation Department has been running since 2020 and the Management Committee and our Board have given us considerable support and the necessary funding to develop our various pilot testing programmes and initiatives.

New innovation projects are discussed at the Innovation Committee, which comprises representatives from business units and enabling functions. At the end of each year we propose the required innovation project funding for the forthcoming year to the Management Committee and present the roadmap and project results also to the Board and seek budget approval so that we can implement our programme from January. Last year we presented 36 innovation projects. We are extending the focus from desalination and solar PV to include other renewables, green hydrogen, hybrid systems and digital technologies.

Our innovation roadmap
2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
  • Master research agreement with KAUST
  • Establishment of Innovation Department
  • First ACWA Power patent filed
  • Technology innovation roadmap approved
  • Launch of several pilot plants in KSA, UAE, Oman
  • Launch of Simulation Platform development
  • First ACWA Power Innovation Days
  • Roland Berger report on innovation status at ACWA Power
  • Roadmap projects implementation
  • First collaboration with startup to mature a break-through technology
  • IP Sprint; interviews
  • HYPE innovation tool
  • Actively participate in local and global Innovation Ecosystem
  • Expand R&D collaborations and explore funding opportunities

Innovation is cutting the cost of power and water dramatically

We have produced a significant tariff reduction in reverse osmosis (RO) desalination, concentrated power and photovoltaic solar energy projects over the last decade.

In desalination we have achieved an energy consumption reduction of 87%. In fact, through a paradigm shift in design and big data analytics, we have driven down the cost of desalination considerably; this makes the RO process more affordable for countries outside GCC such as Egypt and Morocco.

Specific power consumption (SPC), kWh/m3
Tariff reduction in KSA for our desalination plants, SAR/m3

ACWA Power is a constant innovator in renewables and able to deliver competitive tariffs

In solar PV, tariffs have reduced considerably to close to one cent/KWh partly due to optimum solar panel selection for local conditions, high equipment efficiencies and enhanced design tools for best optimised solutions.

In CSP the main factors that drove down the tariffs significantly are the innovation, upscaling, hybridisation and optimisation of the technologies, high steam-turbine efficiency, optimum storage capacity and improved operation strategy.

Tariff, USDc/kWh

Source: Company information. Note: (1) 950 MW solar hybrid project (700 MW CSP and 250 MW PV).

Our technology roadmap projects

Roadmap projects by technology
Roadmap projects by levers

ACWA Power’s Technology and Innovation Strategy focuses on technological value-creating innovations and R&D initiatives that can help to give the Company a competitive edge.

  • We currently have 33 active projects focused largely on core business segments – renewables, water desalination and green gases, in addition to digitalisation, energy storage and hybrids.
  • For the technologies currently on the market and within our business development strategy, the innovation focus is on improving operational excellence, mainly through leveraging our internal innovation dynamics, with the aim to improve bottom line results for our assets.
  • For selected technologies expected to enter the market within five years, the innovation focus is on co-development, by running pilots and demonstration projects, partnering with OEMs, venture capitalists and selected startups, and finally collaborative R&D in partnership with universities and select R&D players in our existing and target markets.
  • Our aim is to secure IP rights and obtain a strong competitive advantage (preferential use of technology or first user position). Stretch targets are defined to reach disruptive market impact.

Vital collaborations to accelerate our innovation – iEcosystem

It is not just our own internal teams who demonstrate ingenuity and give us creative firepower. One of the key benefits of our recent formalisation of innovation is that we have intensified our collaboration with universities, our OEM partners, startups and venture capital firms.

<1 y
Leveraging the internal innovation dynamics
  • Implementing state-of-the-art Innovation management platform
  • Recognise and widely implement innovations across the organisation and projects
1–2 y
Running pilot & demonstration projects
  • Testing new technologies on a small scall as part of our projects
2–3 y
Partnering with OEMs, venture capitalists and selected startups
  • Working closely with risk capital investors + early business partnerships with selected startups
3–5 y
Collaborative R&D
  • Extending the existing partnership with KAUST
  • Engaging with selected R&D players in our target geographical areas: KFUPM, KACST, KSU, KAU.

Historically, we saw innovation as largely internally-driven, limited to our own team producing new technical solutions to drive efficiency and cost savings. But now we are reaching out to the upstream and signing exclusive agreements with leading startups in California, Australia and Europe and this allows us to increase our capacity and speed to market. We invested in the development of a promising technology of a European startup that has the potential to reduce energy consumption of desalination by 30%. Naturally, with innovation and early stage investment comes risk but ACWA Power has an embedded culture of enlightened risk-taking and making the distinction between what is possible and what is impossible.

In the past, ACWA Power had incidental, ad hoc relationships with universities, other companies, government funders, startups, and other bodies; but now we are conducting these relationships in a concerted and coordinated manner, creating a coherent innovation ecosystem.

We are contributing to the strategic research agenda in the Kingdom through the Ministry of Energy’s Energy Innovation Programme and Research Development and Investment Authority (RDIA), which oversees research and development funding in the country.

We have been cooperating with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) for many years and are now broadening out to other top universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad, including MIT and UCLA in the USA. We ran a two day “Innovation days” conference with KAUST, with 120 people physically and 680 people virtually attending with lively discussions between academia and industry. Our view is that we have been in the top tier in terms of our bids and now we are playing at that level in innovation as well.

This year we will be co-organising and sponsoring “Innovation challenges” at international conferences on desalination, solar power, and green hydrogen. We will also conduct webinars on the future developments, have academics to participate, and disseminate on social media channels, reaching more than 340,000 ACWA Power followers and even more users via sharing.

The value of our intellectual property

Whereas we do not regard ACWA Power as a pure IP company, we are keen to protect our original thinking and build an IP portfolio that has considerable value as an intangible asset.

ACWA Power is now making regular filings for patents with the assistance of IP specialist consultants and own tech platform. During 2022 we identified 20 potential IP matters across our technology areas, notably in desalination and photovoltaics. We identified these patent opportunities by interviewing 50 employees and producing a long list of almost 100 innovations.

The value of our data

We have developed our own plant simulation platform and AI machine learning algorithms and we use big data analytics to learn from historical data and to optimise our operations and technical solutions for new bids, contributing to maintaining our competitive advantage.

Future development

In the fast changing technological environment of the energy, water and hydrogen business, we are actively pursuing a technology leadership position driving competitiveness and profitability, as a catalyst for our ambitious growth strategy.

  • The world record tariff in solar PV
  • The world record energy efficiency in water desalination at large scale
  • Lowest tariff for desalination plant in GCC (Jazlah IWP)
  • The largest four desalination plants in the world (including Jazlah IWP now in operation)
  • The largest combined PV-CSP plant in the world
  • The largest fully renewable autonomous power system in the world, with the largest battery storage
  • The most advanced at-scale green hydrogen project in the world
  • The biggest robot density in our industry with 1.5 robots/employee and roadmap to increase to 8.5 robots/employee in the next four years (Korea is second place with a density of 0.1 robots/human employee (source: Statista).