A Match made in Heaven: Solar power and Water desalination

by John Brian Shannon

The nations of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf are blessed to have access to unfathomable amounts of sunlight and salt water. With growing populations and scarce water reserves, governments, public or privately-held power companies and water utilities can capitalize on these national assets — when the economics work.

Even when the economics don’t work, human beings still need water! Growing cities need water for domestic use and industry needs water to produce the goods that we buy, or that they export.

The question for Oman is; How much of Oman’s oil and gas is burning up at desal plants — instead of being exported to add to Oman’s GDP?

In previous decades, the power-hungry desalination plants widely-used throughout the Middle East were powered by electricity created from burning vast amounts of fossil fuel. The economics barely worked when the oil prices were low – but now, with oil once more approaching $100. per barrel, they are costing a king’s ransom to operate. Even oil-rich kingdoms are feeling the pinch nowadays.

A cogent case can be made for adopting alternative energy to power existing and future desalination plants – thereby allowing that oil and gas to be sold at export instead of being burned up. Why burn your money?

At $96.80/barrel for oil (April 2/13) and the natural gas price passing $4.08/MMBtu (April 2/13) the annual fuel cost to produce electricity with fossil fuel is unimaginably high. Really, you don’t want to know.

Fossil fuel exports power the economies of rapidly growing Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nations. Each barrel of oil burned for local desal operations, is one less barrel contributing to the national GDP. A similar situation is at play with regards to natural gas in Oman and the other GCC nations.

Modern solar power plants, such as Masdar’s Shams 1 solar power plant can produce 100 megawatts of clean power for 30-years or more, powered only by sunshine. These modern electrical energy power plants are powerful enough to run; (1) a desalination plant, with enough energy surplus to run (2) a nearby town, or (3) a rural areaor, perhaps all three!

There are two basic types of solar power;

  • Photovoltaic solar, properly called ‘PV-solar’ or ‘PV-solar modules’. The solar panels only produce power when the Sun is shining. Which is fine, because the highest electrical demand occurs during daylight hours.
  • Thermal solar, known as ‘Concentrated Solar Power’ or ‘CSP’ produce power 24 hours a day, by storing excess daytime heat in liquids such as molten salt or oil, to run a steam turbine/electricity generator.

PV-solar (panels) have increased efficiency from their 1980’s-era, 11% efficiency rating — to today’s +33% efficiency rating units. Panels with much higher efficiency ratings (perhaps as high as 100%) will hit the market within 20-years. And through all this, PV-solar panel prices have been falling dramatically, to the point that PV-solar utility-scale power plants are now price-competitive with other kinds of power – assuming similar subsidy levels are in place.

Solar Bonus

As PV-efficiency continues to increase through the next few years, just as it has been doing thus far, PV-solar ‘scaling up’ will be very easy. For example, solar panels are size-standardized, so simply unbolting the ‘old’ 11% efficiency panels and replacing them with the ‘new’ 22% efficiency panels, effectively doubles the power output of the solar power plant — practically overnight! (e.g.; 100 MW to 200 MW)

A few years later, when PV-efficiency increases, those (by then) ‘old’ 22% panels can be replaced with ‘new’ 45% efficiency panels – thereby doubling (again!) the total output of the solar power plant. The ‘old’ solar panels will still work fine, and they can be sold to developing nations, or traded-in against the cost of the new panels, just the same way you would trade your old car for a new one.

In fact, PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power — and that’s not factoring in the costly ‘externalities’ of coal-fired electrical power generation, which range from huge water usage by coal-fired power plants, to toxic airborne emissions, to adverse health effects on citizens – which prematurely killed 1.2 million people in 2007-2010, in China alone!

PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power

CSP solar technology has advanced remarkably and several different designs have proven themselves viable in Spain, the United States and the UAE, although CSP costs are still high when compared to PV-solar and conventional power. This is changing as CSP production ramps up around the world. The one great advantage of CSP solar, is that these power plants produce power 24-hours per day, 365-days per year – and, no harmful emissions.

“Holding nearly half of the world’s renewable energy potential, the Middle East and North Africa are poised for unprecedented growth in renewable energy.” — Masdar

Masdar’s Shams 1 Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) 100 megawatt power plant near Abu Dhabi. image courtesy: Masdar

“The inauguration of Shams 1 is a breakthrough for renewable energy development in the Middle East. With the demand for energy rising exponentially, the region is undergoing a major transformation in how it generates electricity. In fact, the Middle East is poised for major investments in renewables, and Shams 1 proves the economic and environmental advantage of deploying large-scale solar projects.” — His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar. (Read Masdar Shams 1 Press Release here)

It’s safe to say that MENA nations should be planning a long-term switch to solar energy, starting with PV-solar now, and CSP solar starting within the next ten years.

Financing these new, pollution-free power plants could be assisted by GCC government investment (sovereign wealth funds) financed through increased oil and gas exports – as oil and gas will be ‘freed-up’ for sale to international buyers.

It must be said that in areas of the country that make the switch from fossil fuel to solar, the cost of externalities will fall and residents will notice better health and enhanced ‘quality of life’ due to lower airborne emission levels and governments will notice lower health care costs. Not to mention plenty of clean, low-cost water for citizens and industry.


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6 thoughts on “A Match made in Heaven: Solar power and Water desalination

  1. Prince Sharma April 3, 2013 / 03:51

    “they can be sold to developing nations” seems to be the notion of many ‘developed’ nations. But that is to shift a useless products from one place to another and will not have overall benefit. And, hey are the ‘developing’ nations run by dumb people to choose for less efficient products when more efficient and cost competitive products are available in the market? I guess not. All in all, a very nice insight into ‘Solar World’.

  2. John Brian Shannon April 18, 2013 / 00:46

    Hi Prince Sharma,

    They are not useless products, when in this hypothetical example, they may well have 10-20 years of useful life. That is, they will still be able to produce power reliably for many years. And, as you probably know, used solar panels can be had at quite a bargain price. I would call it ‘smart shopping’ to purchase undamaged (no shipping damage, etc.) used solar panels, at much less than half the going price for new solar panels.

    Curious, how you could see that as a bad thing?

    Cheers, JBS

  3. Prince Sharma May 3, 2013 / 06:49

    Hi John, if there are more efficient competitively priced alternative products available in the market then why one should opt for the used ones? Naturally, they would go for more efficient and and cost competitive products. And, the reaction maybe partly because of ongoing push by MNCs for GM crops and seeds as alternative to local varieties in the pretext of food security while the truth is crop failure is higher in GM crops and adaptability of local varieties is higher. Technology is needed not the dumping process. Also, going slow but steady has been the trend in developing and poor nations.

  4. John Brian Shannon May 4, 2013 / 16:34

    Hi Prince Sharma,

    Your entire premise rests on “IF there are more efficient competitively priced alternative products available…”

    But there aren’t.

    No developing nation in it’s right mind, will turn down thousands of solar panels priced at $10.00 each, or much less, compared to new, but higher efficiency panels priced at $269.00 each. In fact, one company, (SolarWorld) donates panels at no cost to some developing countries.

    When a typical solar power plant purchases anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 solar panels (per site), the difference between free panels, or very low cost panels, results in a much lower cost than panels costing almost $300.00 each.


    500,000 panels X (no charge panels) = no panel cost
    500,000 panels X $10.00 each = $5,000,000.00 (five million dollars – for the panels only)
    500,000 panels X $269.00 each = $134,500,000 (one hundred and thirty-four million, five hundred thousand dollars – for the panels only)

    The difference is somewhere between $129.5 to $134 million dollars (per power plant).

    So, you see, it really does make a difference when you can get free, or very low cost panels. Which is why there is a waiting list for used panels. Nobody is forcing the developing nations to take them, Sharma.

    I agree with you on the problems with GMO crops, however.

    Best regards, JBS

  5. Prince Sharma May 14, 2013 / 08:55

    That’s an impressive calculation. I hope they would push for such program than aid. If there is energy, water provided to the people then they would find ways to work themselves out of poverty. Probably time to focus more on energy rather than other ‘aid’.

  6. John Brian Shannon July 9, 2013 / 21:06

    Hi Prince Sharma,

    Thank you. It is a calculation which is now occurring more often around the world.

    Both the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) began using a term ‘energy poverty’ back in 1999, to describe regions or villages where the lack of energy, was in fact, a foundational problem of itself and one which directly contributed to the poverty of the citizens in those areas.

    A good deal of discussion around the MDG’s (Millennium Development Goals) was on the topic of energy poverty, by UN member-states.

    The UNSDSN (United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network) is a new organization under the umbrella of the UN, with significant contributions by the Earth Institute as Columbia University, is now looking beyond the MDG’s to address energy poverty directly — instead of as a small part of the Millennium Development Goals, and the eventual successor to the MDG agreement.

    Best regards, JBS

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