Is Desalination Absurdly Cheap, As Elon Musk Claimed?

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Twitter, SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink, found time in his busy schedule to be a guest of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Among the glancing discussions on the billionaire’s recent antics, his management style, and the so-called “woke virus”, Maher and Musk side tripped into desalination as the businessman attempted to argue that water supply in the world can be sustainable.

In the interview, Maher implied that having more babies was shortsighted given how Earth’s resources have already become scarce, and “lots of people don’t have enough food or water.” Musk retorted, saying, “Earth is 70% water by surface area.” Maher quipped, “But you can’t drink that.”

Musk responded: “Desalination is absurdly cheap,” to which Maher shot back: “Why don’t we do it, then?””

“It is done. There is a lot of desalination done. But there’s plenty of water. This is not an issue. I want to be clear,” Musk quipped.

Desalination is the process of removing salt and other minerals from seawater, brackish water, or other saline water sources so that it can be used for human consumption, irrigation, or industrial purposes. This is usually accomplished by a combination of processes like as reverse osmosis, distillation, and electrodialysis.

The process is growing more vital as the world’s population grows and fresh water sources become scarce. It is utilized in areas with limited access to fresh water, such as dry regions or islands, as well as in areas where the quality of accessible water sources is low due to contamination or excessive salt content.

It is far from being a novel concept. The Sorek desalination plant in Israel, completed in 2015, is one of the largest and most advanced seawater desalination facilities in the world–capable of producing 624,000 cubic meters of freshwater per day. The plant provides a significant source of freshwater to the region, helping to alleviate water scarcity in Israel and surrounding countries.

Desalination is increasingly considered as one viable solution to water quantity and quality issues that may intensify with global population growth, harsh heat, and protracted drought caused by climate change.

Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and North African countries are at the forefront of this expansion, with massive new desalination plants planned or under construction. Renewable water supplies in most of these countries already fall far short of the United Nations definition of absolute water scarcity, which is approximately 350 gallons per person per day, and a 2017 World Bank report suggests that climate change will be the most significant factor increasing the pressure on water supplies in the future.

The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, located 30 miles north of San Diego, California along the Pacific Coast, is North America’s largest endeavor to convert salt water into fresh water. Every day, 100 million gallons of seawater are pushed through semi-permeable membranes to produce 50 million gallons of water for municipal usage. The plant, which began operations in 2015, produces approximately 10% of the fresh water used by the region’s 3.1 million residents, at roughly twice the expense of the other significant source of water.

Desalination plants provide water to over 300 million people worldwide, from the US Southwest to China, as of 2019.

Okay, but is it cheap?

While desalination can provide an important source of fresh water, it can also be energy-intensive and expensive. As a result, it is often used as a last resort when other water sources are not available or when the cost of obtaining fresh water from other sources is prohibitively high.

Desalination can be an expensive process due to the high capital costs of building and operating a desalination plant, as well as the energy costs required to run the plant. The cost of desalination varies depending on a number of factors, including the technology used, the size and location of the plant, and the cost of energy in the region.

The process is classified into two types: thermal, which heats water and then collects the condensation, and reverse osmosis, which drives sea water through pores many times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Reverse osmosis, which is the most commonly used desalination technology, typically costs between $0.50 and $2 per cubic meter of water produced, depending on the factors mentioned above. This can be more expensive than other water sources, such as freshwater from rivers or groundwater, which can cost as little as a few cents per cubic meter.

Desalination is currently mostly limited to more wealthier countries, particularly those with abundant fossil fuels and access to ocean (although brackish water inland can also be desalinated). Desalination has made gains in water-stressed portions of the United States, particularly California, as well as other countries such as Spain, Australia, and China.

So, is it getting cheaper?

However, desalination can still be a cost-effective solution in areas where other water sources are not available or are of poor quality. In some cases, the cost of desalination may be comparable or even less expensive than the cost of importing freshwater or treating contaminated water sources. Additionally, advancements in desalination technology are helping to reduce the cost and energy requirements of the process.

“As populations increase and existing surface water supplies are being tapped out or groundwater is depleted or polluted, then the problems are acute and there are choices to be made” about desalination, said Michael Kiparsky of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. “There are places around the world where [desalination] makes economic sense, where there is high pressure on the water resources plus a lot of available energy resources,” such as the Middle East.

In the last three decades, the cost of desalination arguably has dropped by more than half. Researchers throughout the world are exploring how to enhance desalination procedures, such as developing more effective and durable membranes to generate more water per unit of energy, and better ways to deal with the highly concentrated brine that remains, to make it more affordable and accessible.

Scientists have worked hard in recent years to create desalination technology that can produce clean water from seawater. Interfacial solar evaporation (ISE) is a technology that has the potential to assist alleviate global freshwater shortages.

ISE is a desalination technique that is touted to generate freshwater in an environmentally favorable and sustainable manner. Solar energy is used in this method to evaporate and cleanse water. Photothermal evaporators are used in the technology to convert heat from sunlight to be confined at the evaporation surface for effective vapor formation rather than dissipation into the bulk water and surroundings.

Diagram of the three broad strategies for constructing efficient interfacial solar evaporation systems to relieve worldwide freshwater shortages.
Credit: Nano Research Energy, Tsinghua University Press

Is it safe though in the long-run?

Desalination has environmental implications as well, including greenhouse gas emissions from the vast amount of energy consumed, as well as the disposal of the brine, which is extremely salty and filled with harmful treatment chemicals.

The intake of massive amounts of seawater, which can affect marine species and ecosystems, is one of the most serious environmental repercussions of desalination. Although screening or filtering methods can reduce this impact, some marine life may still be harmed. If concentrated salt brine and other waste products from the desalination process are not adequately managed, they can also affect marine life.

Desalination plants can also affect greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. The process oftentimes necessitates a substantial amount of energy, which is frequently generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, on the other hand, can help to alleviate these effects.

Despite these potential negative consequences, desalination can provide significant environmental benefits by reducing reliance on freshwater resources, which are frequently over-exploited and scarce in many areas. In some circumstances, desalination can also help to improve water quality and reduce contamination from pollutants and other impurities. Overall, the environmental effects of desalination must be carefully considered and mitigated to ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs of this technology.

But to call it “absurdly cheap,” especially to the countries that really need water, is just tone deaf.

Information for this briefing was found via The New York Times, Scientific American, Rolling Stone, Inc, Cal Matters, Gizmodo, Sci Tech Daily, Yale Environment 360, 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.

4 thoughts on “Is Desalination Absurdly Cheap, As Elon Musk Claimed?

  • September 25, 2023 11:42 AM at 11:42 am

    Reverse osmosis, which is the most commonly used desalination technology, typically costs between $0.50 and $2 per cubic meter of water produced.
    Taking maximum amount which is 2$ (200 cents) for 1 cubic meter (1000 liters) comes out to be 1 cent for 5 liters. Also, humanity is working towards getting better and better.

    • September 25, 2023 1:08 PM at 1:08 pm

      On a relative basis, these numbers as provided still represent a sharp increase in the cost of water to a household. Based on 1,000 gallons of water used per month by a household, it would equate to $189 in just desalination costs, before any administrative, pipeline, or municipal fees are added. This translates to a massive expansion in terms of the cost of water for the average family.

  • May 7, 2023 3:23 PM at 3:23 pm

    yes I think he does..0.2 US cents (not even half a penny) per gallon IS absurdly cheap.

  • May 5, 2023 11:06 AM at 11:06 am

    Does Elon need to step in a reinvent desalination as well using 1st principle thinking?


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