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Clean Power Saudi Arabia solar powered desalination

Published on January 22nd, 2015 | by Tina Casey


World’s Largest Solar Powered, Jellyfish-Fightin’ Desalination Plant To Be Built In Saudi Arabia

January 22nd, 2015 by  

If Saudi Arabia and solar power don’t look quite right together, it’s time to shake off that 1970s oil crisis dust and take a look at the country’s recent forays into renewable energy. The latest move is a solar powered desalination plant aimed at treating 60,000 square meters of seawater daily for the northeastern city of Al Khafji. According to the developer, this will be the world’s first utility scale, solar powered desalination plant.

We were just talking about the potential for Saudi Arabia to export its solar technology last summer, as the solar industry revs up in competition with the global market for diesel. The new desalination plant is more evidence that the country is serious about weaning itself off diesel fuel domestically as well.

Saudi Arabia solar powered desalination

Jellyfish filter for solar powered desalination plant (enhanced screenshot, courtesy of Triarena).

Solar Powered Desalination

Seawater is becoming a critical resource as global freshwater supplies come under increasing stress, but conventional desalination is an expensive, energy-sucking process. Renewable energy offers a chance at lowering both costs and emissions, and renewable-powered desalination was a hot topic at the 2013 World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Well, it looks like the future is here. Yesterday, the company Abengoa announced that it has been tapped to partner in the development of the Al Khafji desalination plant by TAQNIA, Saudi Arabia’s innovation investment agency, through its newly formed company Advanced Water Technology (AWT).

If Abengoa rings a bell, you might be thinking of the world’s largest parabolic trough concentrating solar system. That’s just one among many high-profile renewable energy projects under the company’s umbrella, so it looks like Saudi Arabia went to the A-list for this project.


According to AWT, the plant will have a 15 megawatt solar array using polycrystalline solar cells engineered by the research agency King Abdulaziz City Science and Technology.

Speaking of going to the top, Spain’s Triarena also lists the desalination plant among its projects. Energy efficiency goes hand in glove with renewable energy, so it looks like the system includes energy recovery, energy storage, and other efficiency systems to complement the solar array. Here’s a video from Triarena that spells it all out:


The only question we have for now is, what are they going to do with all that brine?

As for the jellyfish, the population of the ubiquitous critters appears to be on the rise, so your first order of business in seawater desalination is to find an efficient way to keep them from gumming up your works.

The plant itself is already under construction and is scheduled to be up and running in early 2017.

Drinking Our Way Out Of Rising Sea Levels…

Renewable-powered desalination is just one pathway under exploration for recovering seawater resources. We’re especially interested in a “quadruple play” water treatment process under development at the  University of Colorado  based on a microbial fuel cell that can desalinate water, treat wastewater, and generate electricity all in one process.

That’s three if you’re keeping count. The fourth part is that the process generates hydrogen gas, which can be recycled back into the system for increased efficiency.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • brad7734

    Build SOLAR powered desalination plant at the Sea of Cortez…with a relatively short water pipeline to Lake Mead. ALL the states getting water from Lake Mead can together pay the cost.

  • Ruben

    sorry but how much solar panels does it take to power this plant?

  • Juliet Richardson

    wow! saudi arabia is showing itself to be forward thinking and solar and science and ecologically friendly.

    and look! a complex project getting done relatively quickly!

    of course saudi arabia doesn’t have the GOP. THAT might explain it…..

  • Muhammad Naveed Hyder

    i want to know about chemical dosing rate selection
    plant capaity 10 m3/h
    Feed Salt :approximatelly 35000-40000ppm
    tell me if there is any method to selct the chemical ratio

  • Muhammad Naveed Hyder

    Dear Larmion
    the desalination plant run on solar power its very effective especially environment friendly .
    Now i am want to star work in sea water treatment Reverse Osmosis Plant as Operator ,i am worry about the chemical concentration how can i find the correct or feasible concentration of dozing chemicals .
    1:chlorine,Hcl,Sodiumbisulphate ,antiscalant
    how i make solution how much ratio is correct

  • Biff

    Please use US units (feet, miles, etc.) not metric. Those units are as much a part of American culture as the French language is in France. Would you tell the French to stop speaking French and speak only English.

    So what if we’re the only country that uses those units. We’re also the only one that landed on the moon and invented the light bulb – or that has a Bill of Rights that protect critical Freedoms citizens of other countries don’t have.

  • Dennis Orlikowski

    California isn’t building even larger solar powered desalinization plants….Why?

  • Jason hm

    Jelly fish? Just incapsulate the intake within a concenteric bubble of increasing fine mesh start a a few hundred yards out with 8inch mesh and decrease incrementally towards micro meshes…The fishing/aquaponics industries have UV and algae growth resistant netting and meshes to do all of it..Just space out the meshes so they do not get fouled.

    • Aku Ankka

      Or try the biological alternative, get the sea turtles like leatherneck or hawksbill turtles. 🙂

  • JamesWimberley

    The rise of jellyfish is credibly attributed to overfishing (link), a lesser part of humanity’s rather comprehensive war on the planet. Overfishing is notable as quite patently irrational, the textbook “tragedy of the commons”. At least carbon burning makes a sort of evil sense, if you don’t care a fig for your or anybody else’s grandchildren.

    • Will E

      carbon burning is the regular economy.
      when it dont burn it dont earn. the transit will be hard. state finance, pension funds investment funds deflation, prices will go down.
      oil and coal ports will have less transit
      coal miners no jobs oil drillers out of work
      a long list of change. time to adapt to renewables and stop the cremation of money
      and start creation of money

    • Victor Provenzano

      There are an array of reasons for the recent increase in jellyfish blooms. Jellyfish like warmer water so global warming now seems to be a contributor to the rising overabundance of their subphylum. They can thrive in saltier water so, among other things, the dumping of brine by desalination plants may be contributing to the rise in their numbers. They like nutrient rich water and, unlike fish, they can thrive in oxygen poor water so the “dead zones” around the mouths of rivers that are filled with farm runoff and are bereft of fish can, at times, be appropriate habitats for them. They have become invasive species in other marine habitats, like the Black Sea, where they have no natural predators. Finally overfishing has eliminated or reduced the number of their native predators in still other marine ecosystems.

  • Marion Meads

    The Jellyfish filter will not work! I watched the video hoping that it is moving and ripping jelly fish apart but it is static, it is a bad design against jellyfishes, especially the large ones found in Japan. Static filters like that will be easily clogged up. What would be nice is for it to have blades and have it rotate and shred the jellyfishes to smithereens as it sucks water. No clogging up.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Wouldn’t the Jellyfish Compote clogged up the intake?

    • Dragon

      One of these cleantechnica articles from a couple months ago was talking about plants that installed a bunch of pipes that simply terminate under the sand/silt and use the sand/silt itself as the main filter. They expected to have to clean out the pipes periodically but they’ve been running for years with no cleaning needed. So I wonder why this plant would try to use filters at all.

      • Marion Meads

        The sand, or gravel filter should have a very large area in order to have very slow intake stream. In fact one of the best designs against Jellyfish is that if you draw the water slow enough so that the Jellyfish can comfortably swim against the current. This means that having a very large surface area for the intake to distribute the intake flow. Jellyfish are excellent swimmers and would tend to swim against the current.


  • Victor Provenzano

    The problem of waste brine from desalination is not a mere side issue, it is the essence of the issue for Saudi Arabia, Israel, California, and all the other “seawater harvesters” around the world. Desalination is fast becoming a global ecological calamity. In vast areas of the Persian Gulf, the sea life, including the plankton, have been killed off by the waste brine from the desalination plants of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. “Renewable” desalination, powered by solar, is, quite sadly, an instance of Saudi Arabian greenwashing at its best. The major solutions to the global water supply issue are, instead, in order, efficient irrigation (since irrigation accounts for over 70% of global water use), a transition to solar and wind energy (which, unlike nuclear, coal and natural gas, do not require an immense amount of water as a coolant), and closed loop recycling of water by industry.

    • RobMF

      To reduce impact, why not just discharge the brine into an evaporation pond and keep the salt for sale as a co-product?

      • Larmion

        Quite apart from there already being an overcapacity for salt production, it’s also far too cheap to ship halfway across the world – and there’s only so much salt a sparsely populated region like the Arabian peninsula can consume locally.

    • Larmion

      Couldn’t agree more. This is not stressed nearly often enough.

      There are a few other measure you’re forgetting by the way:

      – Efficient irrigation is a good first step, but even more important is a return to the cultivation of crops adapted to the local climate. Farmers around the world have switched to cash crops that are ill-suited to the local climate (almonds, cotton, coffee,…). California is a sad example. An end to subsidised crop insurance (which encourages planting high risk, high reward crops) and stricter laws on water use could change things for the better.

      – Even within a single crop species, huge variations in water use efficiency exist between different cultivars. Maize, for example, has often been bred for yield rather than efficient water use (despite it natively being remarkably drought-tolerant). In drier areas, shifting to crops adapted to brief periods of drought will not only reduce water use but also boost yields and reduce variation in harvests between years.

      – Households can do a lot too. While they account for a tiny part of demand for water, they use a huge chunk of desalinated water (which is way too expensive to use for agriculture). Low flow shower heads, efficient toilets, greywater recovery, navy-style showering and so on can significantly reduce water demand.

      • Jenny Sommer

        I am so glad I don’t need to save water.

        • chris snyder

          I live between CA and MO – my MO friends wonder why I even mention about saving/wasting water (in MO, we get charged for a minimum amount which I think I never hit). Chance of a 1/4″ rain in SF bay area in next couple days, with almost 2″ in MO.

          It was interesting to read the Ogallala aquifer in the midwest is also in danger of running out of water. Didn’t read much but seems it’d be easy to pipe water in to replenish it. Seems water has become a bigger issue than oil.

          • FritzHead

            ????The Ogallala is being tapped for big cities like Dallas and San Antonio..

      • Jacob

        Say no to low flow showers!

        Just collect used shower water, filter it, and use it to flush toilets.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Too expensive. Low flow shower heads are cheap.

          • Jacob

            You probably have no figures on how much it costs in new homes and hotels.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I probably don’t. But I could make an educated guess.

            With new construction a greywater system could be somewhat cheap or cost a lot more. Depending on what the local building department requires.

            Running a separate drain line with today’s PVC pipe is fairly cheap. I think there are some issues with the solid waste line if it doesn’t also carry the shower/sink water which helps move things along.


    • Marion Meads

      Why not use waste brine to produce electricity? The waste brine is more concentrated than the seawater, and so a difference in salt concentration can generate electrical energy. The resulting mixed brine, pump it out far into the middle of the deep sea where it will get diluted before recycling back. If you can build thousands of miles of oil pipelines, this should not be a problem.

      Here’s an example that can be extended to saltwater with lower salt concentration and the waste brine from desalination plant. In this example they use the salt concentration difference between saltwater and freshwater.


      • Larmion

        You can generate electricity from almost everything if you really want to. The question is whether you can generate a meaningful amount of energy from the small volumes of water involved here and if so, at what cost.

        Studies in the Netherlands found that fitting some of the vast pumping stations used for flood defense could be used for generating electricity. The problem? You’d need 20 square kilometres of membrane to generate 80MW of electricity. Theoretically, 1 cubic metre of sweet water can generate 0.28 kWh assuming a strong driving force and a 100% efficient process.

        Admittedly, the pressure differential is larger when using brine, but as your own article shows the area involved is still vast. Membranes can be packed tightly, so volume needn’t be an obstacle. The cost of semi-permeable membranes, however, is.

        Wind and solar power are cheap-ish. Osmotic energy isn’t. And since all three are possible in Saudi Arabia, there’s no reason to go for the expensive option.

        As for pumping the brine out far into the sea: that’s an option, but you’d still get local dead zones. It also increases both cost and energy use, so it would turn an already expensive option into a more expensive one.

        Granted, SA probably has no other realistic choice but to desalinate some water. But the first priority should be to limit the volumes required (through conservation and direct reuse) and that isn’t done nearly enough. And some other areas (California for example) are considering desalination even though they don’t need to at all if only they’d use water more efficiently.

        Not every problem can or should be solved by using ever more energy, resources and technology. Simply making do with less is often cheaper, cleaner and easier.

        • Marion Meads

          Gravity fed to move the water as the source of brine has a higher elevation than the saltwater. Even if you put the end of the tube in the deepest part or at the sea level, doesn’t matter much if tube length is the same. So the small energy is for overcoming pipe friction if you want to increase pumping volume rate. You can reduce such by increasing the pipe diameter.

          • Larmion

            Then you’ll simply increase the power used for pumping the seawater/brine to the height of the disposal tank, unless you can build an Escher-like contraption.

            The best option would be to keep the entire process from inlet to outlet more or less at sea level, but energy use would still be significant.

            Brine discharge is an ecological disadvantage no matter how you do it. At best, you can try to discharge into a zone that already has a low biodiversity – which is unlikely to be anywhere near the shore.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            I believe the Saudis use most of this fresh water for their oil production and they pump the waste back into the gulf.

          • Mahmoud Sindi

            How much this project will cost?

          • Jacob

            I think they grow wheat in the desert.

            Dubai uses sewer water to irrigate golf courses.

            They can get used shower water, filter it, and use it to flush toilets.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            They use a massive amount of water in their injection wells to produce oil. The heavy saline water is pumped back out.

          • Jacob

            They inject salt free water into their injection wells?

        • Michael G

          I’m in the midst of the CA water wars. Saying people should behave more responsibly about water is like saying people should be smarter. Absolutely true but saying so won’t make it happen so we need to deal with the realities we face now.

          • Larmion

            And building a desalination plant (aka throwing money into the sea) is a better idea?

            Here’s an idea: use the money you would otherwise spend on a desalination plant on subsidising efficient irrigation and other water saving measures as well as on advancing direct reuse.

            After all, most farmers aren’t opposed to the idea of using less water (it actually boosts yields), they just don’t like the significant upfront cost that comes with it – especially since there is little or no financial penalty for excessive water use.

          • Joseph Dubeau

            San Cruz is considering this yet once again.

          • Marion Meads

            Plants can also tolerate some salt in the water, and it improves their flavor and quality.

          • Cookie Lipschitz

            Excuse me, but that’s silly. If salt builds up in the soil, bye-bye cropland.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You could always plant dryland shrimp….

          • Cookie Lipschitz

            Or your head…

          • Bob_Wallace

            Ahhhhh, someone stole Cookie’s sense of humor….

    • JamesWimberley

      I take your word for it about the Persian Gulf, which is shallow and nearly closed. But “a global ecological calamity”? Many other plausible locations for large-scale desalination – the Mediterranean, California, Chile, Australia – are close to very deep sea. It would add to the cost to pipe the brine deep, but the volumes surely can’t upset the ecology of the deep oceans.

      The Black Sea is dead below a certain depth. This is probably the result of a cataclysm about 10,000 years ago, when a natural dam where the Bosphorus is now broke, and a colossal volume of salt water rushed in from the Mediterranean to what was a lower-lying freshwater sea. (Noah’s flood, maybe?) The Black Sea hasn’t reached equilibrium yet. The coastal populations don’t complain much.

    • Steven F

      Keep in mind that the total amount of salt and water on earth are fixed. dumping brine into the ocean doesn’t cause salt content to increase year after year. Most of the water removed from the ocean goes to waste treatment plants and then from there goes back into the ocean. The water that doesn’t make it back to the waste treatment plants evaporates and eventually turns to to rain and returns to the ocean. About 5000 square meters a year of water is removed from the Persian gulf a year through desalinization. Simple evaporation from the surface of the gulf is many many times larger

      The solution to the brine problem is to mix it with a lot of seawater. When done correctly the salt concentration at the outflow is not dangerous to sea life. Unfortunately most of the desalinization are old and may not properly diluted when it is dumped in the gulf. This will impact the area near the plant but areas further away would be unaffected. dilution is done in California and as a result no brine dead zones are created.

    • wallybobble

      waste brine can go back in the ocean, to compensate for the fresh water melting from the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica

    • brad7734

      Brine and salt is a problem?? Perhaps if you dump the salt into the ocean at the site of the desalination plant. Instead, load the salt onto a barge..or ship..and dump out a sea a distance from the shore where the salt is evenly dissipated. AND…no, the ocean will not become saltier. The water cycle will return water to the sea as well. Remember your grade school science. Don’t be an idiot.

  • bbbb

    what means 60,000 square meters of seawater? how many liters or gallons is this?

    • Larmion

      I presume it’s a typo and should be 60.000 cubic metres.

      That would work out to 60 million litres a day or just under 16 million US gallons a day.

      • chris snyder

        Thank you.. I had same question – sometimes it really pays to read the comments.

    • FritzHead

      A square meter of water is 1000 liters

      • Jacob

        No. A cubic meter of water is 1000L.

        The author made a mistake.

      • IntlExec

        Liquids are measured by Cubic Meters thus one cubic meter is the equivalent of 1000 Liters.

  • Matt

    I watched the video, where is the solar power? Unless it is a PPA to buy solar electric.

    • Jan Veselý

      Solar energy here is concentrated solar as an excelent source of heat not electricity.
      Amory Lovins was right again, the process heat is a niche for concentrated solar.

      • Larmion

        As per Abengoa’s press release, this won’t use concentrated solar. And there’s no process heat involved, since the plant won’t use flash destillation.

        Water will be desalinated using ultrafiltration combined with reverse osmosis. Both work based on a pressure gradient, which is generated using electricity from a nearby PV plant.

        Probably the best choice by the way. While RO costs more upfront, energy use is a lot lower. And even in SA saving energy pays.

    • Larmion

      Abengoa will build a solar farm near the plant with an output equivalent to the plant’s energy use.

      The desalination itself is done using reverse osmosis and thus powered by grid electricity, no solar directly involved.

    • tibi stibi

      i would expect at least solar panels for keeping the cars in the shade.

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