John Webley again sits in the same Petaluma office building where he served 15 years ago as a vice president for Advanced Fibre Communication.
But Webley, the owner of Santa Rosa's landmark McDonald Mansion, is no longer a Telecom Valley entrepreneur in a company that eventually grew to more than 700 workers. Instead, he works now as the CEO of Trevi Systems, a small startup trying to dramatically reduce the energy needed to make fresh water from the world's oceans and brackish groundwater.
This spring, Trevi, which operates in an office park along North McDowell Boulevard, has won two awards to build pilot desalination systems in California and the Middle East.
The 4-year-old startup was selected as one of four international companies to each construct a pilot seawater desalination plant in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. As well, the California Energy Commission has awarded Trevi a $1.7 million grant to build a pilot desalination system in Orange County to clean treated wastewater before the liquid is pumped into deep aquifers for reuse as groundwater.
Both awards provide Trevi, a company of 20 workers, the chance to show that its method can significantly lower the cost of removing salt from water.
A typical desalination plant today costs about $100 million for construction and consumes another $200 million worth of electricity over 20 years, Webley said.
A "forward osmosis" plant built using Trevi's method likely would cost the same amount to build, he said. But the company seeks to produce the same volume of drinking water with just $30 million worth of power.
Webley helped start both Advanced Fibre and Turin Networks, two telecom companies that eventually were purchased by or merged with other enterprises. Admirers see him as entrepreneur who understands both business and technology.
"In a word, it's gold to have John here," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "That spirit of innovation and that genius for making things happen is rare."
Trained as an electronics engineer, Webley admits to being attracted to a challenge vastly different from his work with at least five telecom startups.
"The element of the unknown is great," he said of his new endeavor. "I thrive on that."
But the native South African also said that global demand for clean drinking water is a problem worth tackling.
The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas with water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population will face "water stressed conditions."
Trevi will build its pilot systems at a time when desalination is an established, though expensive, process for providing water to some of the driest regions on earth.
Water suppliers have built about 16,000 desalination plants around the world, largely in the Middle East. The Associated Press reported last week that roughly 35 percent of Israel's drinking-quality water now comes from desalination, and that number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050.
The U.S. now ranks fourth as the largest producer of desalinated water, behind Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Spain, according to the International Desalination Association. But America looks to a different source than the Middle East for its water sources.
"In the U.S., we don't do very much seawater desalination," said Tom Davis, director of the Center for Inland Desalination Systems at the University of Texas at El Paso.