Sent from above: SOURCE Global takes on the globe’s water scarcity problem

The company is tapping into a renewable source—the sky—to supply drinking water to residential communities and commercial properties in Asia

“Hospital beds globally are filled with people with waterborne illnesses.”

Globally, more than two billion people lack access to safe drinking water at home. Even in major cities throughout Asia, tap water is often not safe to consume—and so people turn to bottled water instead. Half a trillion single-use plastic bottles are sold each year around the world.

SOURCE Global, a US-based company, is working to address these challenges with a unique technology that produces clean drinking water from sunlight and air.

This renewable, decentralised form of high-quality drinking water leapfrogs infrastructure, allowing people to make clean water wherever they are, without the need to haul it long distances through pipes or in plastic bottles.

The company’s customers range from individual households to corporate offices and factories, and then more rural, isolated, government-sponsored projects where the primary hurdle is lack of access to a centralised source.

“Throughout our core markets in Asia, people typically have water they can use for toilets, showers and irrigation, but then they buy higher-quality packaged drinking water,” says Robert Bartrop, SOURCE’s chief revenue officer who leads the company’s global business development activities.

“Our residential systems are replacing that drinking water component in a dramatically more cost-effective, sustainable and resilient way.”

Bartrop previously spent a decade working for First Solar, a US-based photovoltaics (PV) developer, and recalls having similar discussions then with companies that wanted to move away from coal and gas to renewable sources to generate power in a more sustainable and accessible way.

“I’m taking what I learned working on renewable energy and applying it to renewable water, which in my view is an even bigger problem with a less developed set of solutions,” he says.

Throughout our core markets in Asia, people buy higher-quality packaged drinking water. Our residential systems are replacing that component in a dramatically more cost-effective, sustainable and resilient way

“The future is very large. The future is scale: the ability to go from being one-tenth the cost of bottled water to one-hundredth. Like all great problems, there will need to be a set of technologies and an arsenal of different approaches to create a holistic solution. We have a very important role to play in that.”

How does SOURCE’s technology work?

There are two core concepts. One is material science. We’ve developed an advanced material that’s effective at absorbing water from air. Then we use solar thermal energy—heat from the sun—to condense the water. That’s a very efficient process that requires no electricity. This mix of material science and solar thermal energy technology enables us to make water in a renewable way anywhere on the planet.

How much water does it produce?

It depends. We can have one or two panels in a residential installation or a whole field of panels for a community. At my house, I have two panels, which I would say is fairly typical for a residential installation. That provides about 300 litres per month, which is the equivalent of a 20-pack of bottled water per day. That’s typically in line with standard household drinking water consumption.

How many people can larger-scale projects serve?

It’s completely scalable. Last year we installed at more than 1,000 homes in Australia through the Aboriginal Housing Office, which covers a vast geographic region. We’ve done similar-scale projects in the US with the Navajo Nation, an indigenous population. Tens of thousands of people consuming water is a regular-sized project for us. People don’t have to be living in one building. They can be dispersed in villages, on islands, or farms.

How much physical size do these projects require?

On an acre of land, we can make about two million litres of water per year. And that is going to be enough drinking water for 5,000-plus people. That can help unlock the usefulness of other existing bodies of water for toilets, showers, irrigation, and things like that—which is helpful for non-drinking purposes. We deal with drinking water stress.

More: A visionary shaping the societal fabric and skylines of Asian cities

Does the technology work everywhere?

I live in Arizona, where it’s about 10 percent humidity and we get really good performance. We are well proven over a wide range of climates. We work in freezing conditions, but the water is harder to pump and store. So we avoid places that have deep freezes throughout winter, like Scandinavia and those types of places. We focus close to the equator. The majority of the world’s water problems are in high-temperature locations.

What are some examples of how this technology is changing people’s lives?

There are huge health issues with water. Hospital beds globally are filled with people with waterborne illnesses. But I think maybe a less discussed outcome is the number of hours spent by women and girls fetching water. When you look at basic development statistics like education, income, and life expectancy, we see a much bigger gap in rural, remote populations versus what we see in cities. A lot of that comes from their lifestyles, where water is the most important thing they need to secure every day, versus being able to stay in school or go to work. And so less than the absolute cost, the opportunity cost of those women and children in remote communities, I think, is the greatest value creation we bring.

The company’s customers range from urban dwellers to people in more rural, isolated places in the developing world

What are some challenges in scaling the business?

One challenge is that the water industry has less familiarity with innovation relative to energy or telecommunications. With water, it’s very much a Roman-era mentality where you have to get it from a pipeline. That’s one of the reasons water is low-cost and safe in big cities, and then not available in smaller villages, farms, and places like that. I think the ecosystem of regulators and governments haven’t considered the sky—the abundant reservoir of drinking water in the sky—as a place where you can harness drinking water locally.

We’re spending time with various levels of government to help them update their regulations to contemplate a decentralised, non-traditional drinking water solution, which is not being met with resistance but is not an area where there has been a lot of innovation in the past. That increases the timelines involved in larger government projects.

More: Illac Diaz lights up rural communities without access to electricity

What is the company’s split between its urban and rural business?

Our private sector is predominantly urban. We do a lot of work in hospitality, real estate, and then some more remote urban places, like big mining companies, islands, and things like that. Our government work is predominantly rural—so you look at water challenges in the developing world. These are decentralised locations that don’t have centralised water infrastructure: islands, villages, and farms—places that are difficult to access from a construction standpoint.

What impact is climate change having on the water issue?

It’s huge. I’d say it’s an existential impact. Water access is traditionally about pipes. If you have a pipe, you have water. If you don’t, you don’t. What we’re saying now is even places that have pipes may not have water, because pipes are only as good as the amount of water flowing through them. We’re seeing in major cities—the most recent being Chennai, before that Cape Town—an existential issue where they are running out of water. Aquifers are being sucked dry. It’s also an issue in the southwest of the US. And in places like Timor-Leste, the dry season is increasing. Islands might depopulate for some time until the rain comes. It’s an enormous challenge—not just an infrastructure challenge but also a resource challenge.

Do you have a sense of how many panels you’ve installed globally?

In the last four years, we’ve gone from dozens of projects to hundreds of projects and now literally thousands of projects every year. Some projects are residential homes. Some are thousands of panels in a field. There’s a mix between those two markets. Hundreds of thousands of people are drinking our water every day, which is great. But hundreds of millions need it. We’re still in the early stages of the type of impact we’re looking to make.

The original version of this article appeared in Issue No. 167 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine.
Write to our editors at [email protected].