Desalination: Elon Musk Says ‘Its The Solution To The Global Water Crisis’

Last week I was sitting on my couch, eating some bon bons, and watchin Bill Maher interview Elon Musk. They had an interesting exchange on the use of water desalination and its inherent costs.

So I thought it would be fun to dive into this topic matter to see who’s right.

In this video, we’ll explore the current technologies, environmental impacts, and real-world examples of desalination projects, as well as discuss the potential for this innovative approach to contribute to global water security.

Let’s dive in.

Water scarcity

The global water crisis is an increasingly pressing issue as the world’s population continues to grow. With 71% of the Earth covered in water, it may seem like there is an abundant supply. However, only 2.5% of that water is freshwater, and a mere 1% is easily accessible in rivers, lakes, and streams. The remaining freshwater is found in groundwater, glaciers and snowfields. The United Nations (UN) predicts that by 2050, the demand for water will rise by around 40% globally due to an additional 2.5 billion people. If current trends continue, water shortages could lead to conflict and challenges.

Several factors contribute to the global water crisis, including climate change, wastewater, lack of water data, and water infrastructure. Climate change is a leading cause, with vulnerable areas experiencing more frequent droughts, floods, and other water-related natural disasters. These events can contaminate clean water sources and increase the risk of waterborne diseases. 

Furthermore, at a global scale, 44% of household wastewater is not safely treated, and 80% of wastewater returns to the ecosystem without being treated or reused. This can lead to the contamination of water sources with feces, chemicals, or other toxins, resulting in the spread of diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio.

To address this crisis, it is essential to find sustainable solutions like water desalination, which Elon Musk claims is cheaper than people think. Desalination provides potable water, supports agricultural industries, and offers a safe and sustainable water solution. By removing contaminants and hazardous substances from water, desalination makes it safe to drink and use for various purposes. Implementing systems that improve water quality can help prevent waterborne diseases and fatalities, contributing to global health and wellbeing.

However, it is important to consider that what may be considered sustainable in one location might not be feasible elsewhere. Factors such as local resources, infrastructure, and environmental impacts must be taken into account when determining the most appropriate solution.

Current desalination tech

Water desalination technology can be broadly classified into two main categories: thermal and membrane. Thermal desalination involves heating saline water and collecting the condensed vapor to produce pure water. This method is more commonly used for seawater rather than brackish water due to the high costs involved. Some popular thermal desalination processes include multi-stage flash distillation (MSF), multiple-effect distillation (MED), and vapor compression distillation (VCD). These processes have been in use since the late 1950s and early 1960s, with varying degrees of efficiency and scale.

The commonly used thermal method is reverse osmosis, which became commercialized in the 1970s. Reverse Osmosis is the most widely used method for desalination in the United States. The process uses pressure to force saline water through a semipermeable membrane, resulting in a product water stream and a concentrated brine stream.

The cost of water desalination varies depending on factors such as source water, location, treatment process, and plant size. For instance, according to Daily Breeze, a proposed ocean water desalination plant capable of processing 20 million gallons of seawater daily could cost between $514 million and $740 million. 

The operation of such a plant could require nearly $20 million per year. In general, desalinated brackish water, which is water in between ocean water and freshwater, may cost between $1.25 and $2.60 per 1,000 gallons, while desalinated seawater may cost between $3.60 and $5.80 per 1,000 gallons – which may sound cheap, until one considers the current cost of freshwater.

Simplified process of desalination. Source: AZO Cleantech

Environmental impacts

Water desalination, while offering a solution to water scarcity, does come with environmental costs. A study published in Science of the Total Environment reveals that desalination plants generate a significant amount of brine waste, which contains toxins like chlorine and copper and has a higher salt concentration than typical seawater. 

The disposal of brine waste in the ocean can lead to reduced oxygen levels, impacting marine life such as shellfish and crabs, with ecological effects extending throughout the food chain. Some fish and seabirds have mechanisms to expel excess salt from their bodies, but excessively salty seawater may overwhelm these systems and lead to their demise.

Another concern with water desalination is its high energy consumption. According to Bloomberg, desalination requires about 15,000 kilowatt-hours of power per million gallons of freshwater produced, which is nearly twice the amount used for wastewater reuse. 

Which works out to around 14.4 minutes of running a standard American fridge per gallon of water. To put that into perspective the average American is said to use 60-80 gallons of water per day. So if an American were using the same amount of water as they currently do, but it was all desalinated, it would be equivalent to each person running a fridge 16.8 hours a day.

This high energy demand can increase fossil fuel dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, amplifying climate change if renewable energy sources are not employed for freshwater production. The U.S. Department of Energy also notes that diesel fuels are commonly used to power the pumps at desalination plants.

Real world examples of desalination

Among the largest desalination projects in the world, Ras Al Khair  in Saudi Arabia stands out with a production capacity of 1,036,000 m3/day. This hybrid project, which started operations in 2014, employs both thermal multistage flash (MSF) and reverse osmosis (RO) technologies. 

Another significant desalination plant is the Taweelah A1 in the UAE, a gas-fired electricity and desalination plant with a gross power output of 1,672.5 MW and a water desalination capacity of 84.8 million imperial gallons a day (MIG/day). 

The Shuaibah 3 desalination plant in Saudi Arabia, which produces 880,000 m3/day, is another notable project involving the construction of a reverse osmosis (RO) seawater desalination plant about 110 km south of Jeddah City.

The Sorek Desalination Plant in Israel, operational since October 2013, is another prominent project with a production capacity of 624,000 m3/day. Using seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO), the facility provides water to Israel’s national water carrier system. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in California produces 50 million gallons of water per day for 110,000 customers throughout San Diego County. Constructed by Poseidon Resources at a cost of $1 billion, the plant was the largest desalination facility in the country when it began operations in December 2015.

The future of desalination

As global water scarcity becomes a pressing concern, emerging technologies and research in desalination are driving the industry forward. The Global Water Desalination Equipment Market is expected to reach a market size of around US$ 16 billion by 2028, growing at a CAGR of approximately 8% during the forecast period. 

This growth is fueled by various projects and investments, such as Arizona officials voting to advance a $5.5-billion plan to build a desalination plant in Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI) funding 12 projects aimed at improving the energy efficiency of desalination and water reuse technologies.

Innovation in desalination technologies is expected to lower costs and increase sustainability, aligning with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). Technology advancements are projected to reduce the cost of desalinated water by 20% in the next five years, and by up to 60% in the next 20 years. 

Although no major technology breakthroughs are anticipated in the near future, the steady reduction of production costs, combined with increasing water treatment costs due to stricter regulations, is expected to accelerate the trend of relying on ocean water desalination as a reliable, drought-proof alternative for many coastal communities worldwide.

In conclusion

So let’s wrap it up.

Going back to Elon’s statement, it’s hard to say if he’s right or wrong, because he didn’t quantify his statement. And he may have different ideas on producing clean low cost power than any of us expect places like Saudi Arabia, India, or China to employ.

Water desalination holds immense potential for addressing the global water crisis and contributing to a more sustainable future. With continued research and investment, desalination could become a vital component in our quest for global water security and a more sustainable world. But as with most clean technologies, we will always be hoping for something better.

Information for this briefing was found via Reuters, Bloomberg, and the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

One thought on “Desalination: Elon Musk Says ‘Its The Solution To The Global Water Crisis’

  • May 18, 2023 12:34 PM at 12:34 pm

    How many degrees change in temperature do you all need to prove the Climate change story which robs and robbed the American people of trillions? Will it change 1 or 2 degrees? Your fake scientists have no answer. You are SCIENCE/CLIMATE HOAXERS.


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