Solar Desalination: Surviving Water’s Coming Armageddon

At the speed global water conversion from foul-to-fresh is spreading around the globe—via inexpensive household solar ‘desal’ units—a few hundred billion ordinary people will NOT go thirsty.

The average human adult can survive for only two or three days without potable water, depending on the region, altitude, temperature, and humidity levels.1 Yet world population—7,164,000,000—has outstripped potable water supplies. At least a sixth of that population (1,100,000,000) don’t have clean drinking water. Even with a 10% annual population decline projected at 8,300,000,000 by 2050, the situation will worsen.

Earth’s remaining supply won’t fill the void because 97.5% is salty, 1% is brackish groundwater. Of that 2.5% left, two-thirds currently are frozen, a third is potable, but 70% of that irrigates global food. The U.N.’s recent report declared carbon intake is acidifying oceans. Some oceans have become oxygen-less “dead zones.” Some huge inland lakes (Erie) have grown so much toxic algae that last August tapwater of 500,000 Ohio residents were impacted. In short, the planet is rapidly nearing Samuel Coleridge’s lifeboat poem of 1798: “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”2

Other human activities also are significantly depleting huge reserves of remaining water either because of greed or environmental disregard. First for “high crimes” are multinational coal companies in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Their “overburden” from mountaintop removal and effluent from coal washing has choked and poisoned valley riverine systems since the 1970s.

Next, are multinational corporations fracking or mining for oil and gas under land leased from the ignorant, the equally greedy, or seized from holdouts by eminent domain. Each wellhead uses from 10,000,000 to 25,000,000 gallons of water. All are loaded with 500-750 chemicals—29 toxic to humans. Discharge is either deposited underground or in unlined open-air pits. Most of California’s 400 pits and/or underground storage areas are near waterways.

Shockingly, while 20 nations recently met in Lima, Peru for pre-Paris climate-agreement discussions, two multinational “Corporate Conquistador” companies—Repsol, Glencore-Xstata, Enel-Endesa—were busily draining vast water sources in that country for mining profits abroad and sending poisonous discharges into groundwater with impunity for locals to drink. Peru’s government, like other weak nations, was “bought off” by those corporations.

Include Bolivia, India, Mexico—and U.S. state/municipal officials—overpowered by the bottled-water industry led by Bechtel, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Suez, Veolia, and Vivendi Universal all backed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Include, too, the global garment industry swallowing two trillion gallons of freshwater annually, its “flow-through” of chemicals and dyes flushed into waterways. Now threatened are eight Midwest states dependent upon Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer for crops and drinking water if President Obama or Congress approve TransCanada Corporation’s demand to run a fracked-oil pipeline nearby despite known risks of leaks and ground shifts breaking lines.

If the super-secret Trans-Pacific Trade Pact is signed by trade-desperate nations like the U.S., a multinational company will be able to ignore a nation’s environmental laws by suing it, as is happening now in El Salvador, for denial of projected profits from resource extractions.

Water Shortages Setting off Global Crime Waves by the Desperate

None of these actions are considered criminal actions against humanity or Nature, but are when committed by people increasingly desperate for water: Spigot siphonings in Detroit; armed gangs extorting water from India’s villages; shootouts between farmers and golf-course owners in the Philippines; violence over water against corporations or governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Peru;3,4 poisoning wells in Liberia; blackmarket sales and hotlines in California.

Worrisome to governments is overthrow because of “social tsunami” over water shortages—and ailments like cholera and deaths from drinking polluted water—or privatization—will spark explosions not even armies will control. After all, bread shortages finally triggered the French Revolution, overwhelming an army, guillotining the 1%, and seizing their money and walled estates.

Small wonder that Defense Department’s “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” report indicates it’s preparing for trouble over vast population migrations seeking water and food. Even back in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy, mindful of upheavals over water, warned:

If we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water… it would be in the long-range interests of humanity, which would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments. I am hopeful that we will intensify our efforts in that area.

Today, governments that do not want to spend military budgets on firepower to quell revolutions over water would be well advised to say “no” to those gutting water supplies. Secondly, to invest in providing solar desalination systems to their citizens. Solar is far cheaper, simpler than fossil-fuel types that only Arab kingdoms can afford—and does little harm to the environment.

Solar Conversion Processes Date Back for Thousands of Years

For thousands of years, billions have lived in areas requiring conversion of water or contaminated water to potable form, particularly in the arid Middle East. Sanskrit and Greek writings listed at least three methods of creating drinking water: exposing it to the sun (solar), filtering it through charcoal, sand, or clay (distillation), or by boiling. Aristotle conducted a distillation experiment in 350 BCE.

As population quadrupled in the U.S. after World War II, so did outcries for converting foul water to fresh by water districts, municipalities, agriculture, and industry. By 1952 that Congress passed the Saline Water Act. It offered $1,416,000,000 (today’s value) for developing larger desalination installations. Until recently, all have been dependent on membranes separating water from salt and other contaminants as fossil-fuel and nuclear energy powers a process emitting clouds of carbon into the atmosphere, and high risks of nuclear storage.

Additionally, if discharge is “recaught” and reprocessed, equipment suffers further increases in fouling and corrosion. Constant reprocessing affects water’s taste and eventually makes it alkaline, as a National Geographic writer noted about Israel’s non-stop recycling operations.5 Water needs to rest.

Equipment is ruinously expensive and requires constant cleansing and replacements, as well as enormous installations to house it and, equally, enormous sources of nearby oceans, rivers, or lakes. Costs are still so high that only Arab kingdoms, other wealthy nations, or companies can meet them.

For example, the San Diego County Water Authority faces paying $2,257 per acre-foot per year (average: $2,000) to a private desalination company (Poseidon Resources)—passing that sum—and operating overhead—to water bills of 1,300,000 customers. That’s because immense energy—1,000 pounds per square inch—yields 1,000 gallons of freshwater at most fossil-fuel installations, but burns at least 14 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Twenty years ago the average world price of fossil-fuel water was about $5 for 264 gallons (one cubic meter. True, U.S. prices in 2013 dropped to 29¢ for 264 gallons, but have provided only 1% of drinkable water globally.

Because some 300,000,000 people today rely on desalinated water, it explains why by 2013 more than 17,000 non-solar plants existed by 2013—not counting those accompanying every fossil-fuel fracking operation. A collective 21,120,000,000 gallons per day was produced for 150 water-short countries, including the U.S. Dozens more are on the drawingboards.5 Even so, it won’t be long before most nations, especially those inland, will be forced to let millions die of thirst or disease from polluted water as is happening to the Great Lakes from pesticide/synthetic fertilizer runoff.

UNESCO’s desalination expert sees improvements in membrane materials and energy-recovering devices, but finally admitted that the fossil-fuel process will soon plateau.

Solar Desalination to the Rescue: Simple, Cheap, and Available

Yet all is hardly lost, thanks to the recent and spectacular rise of solar desalination systems around the world—coastal or inland—possibly because of the environment movement and recycling emphasis of the last 20 years. Sunshine covers the Earth freely. One signal of this booming market was the DuPont company quitting the membrane business in 2004.

The sun’s colossal heating power (thermal energy) is Earth’s oldest energy source. From food preparation, it evolved in the 7th century BCE to people using a crude magnifying glass to make fire and destroy ants. In 212 BCE, Greek mathematician Archimedes applied the same principle to bronze shields against Rome’s armies and destroyed its fleet at Syracuse.

First attempts at direct solar desalination was explained in 1609 by Italy’s Giambattista della Porta. By 1816, Scotland’s Robert Stirling added the sun’s energy to industrial use for powering electrical engines. Twenty years later in France, Edmond Becquerel boosted that power by exposing electrodes in a selenium solution to sunlight. The photovoltaic cell was born.6

Then came an 1880 silver strike near Las Salinas in northern Chile. It drew hundreds of prospectors to that desert area, including Charles Wilson, an American. Instead of digging for silver, he cashed in on thirsty miners with solar power to convert mines’ saltpeter discharges into potable water. He leased 50,000 square feet and bought a few supplies on credit: a 5,000-gallon tank, wood to frame 64 “troughs,” glass, and a windmill for power. At 1¢ per gallon, he earned what today would be $45,460 on a peak day. The still served thousands for 40 years until water was piped in.7,8 Its resemblance to today’s solar panels is uncanny. As an historian described the 1882 operation—and the “Father of Solar Distillation”:

[The system] pumped brine from the ground using a windmill to fill long, shallow troughs. Wilson’s plant had each trough permanently roofed with a low, A-frame made of glass panels. The vapor-laden air, much hotter than the outside atmosphere, condensed when it came in contact with the cooler glass. The glass clouded up. Droplets formed, coalesced and trickled down the sloping glass ceiling into collecting grooves that led to [the] freshwater storage tank.8

Solar desalination proved itself in the mid-1960s on four Greek islands, one producing eight to 33 gallons of potable water per day. It then took off. By 1985, California had 345 solar plants serving farms and towns.

Solar desalination’s simplicity does not require much equipment nor huge installations or overhead, and has none of fossil-fuel’s desalination drawbacks except for brine collection. Energy is free and pumps are driven by wind and/or photovoltaic energy. So overhead is minimal and production sufficient.

Solar also does little damage to the environment. It has reclaimed degraded land and cut the need for hookup lines to electricity grids, an advantage in areas where electricity is unavailable. Best, excess energy can be stored for reuse when clouds or nightfall shut out sunlight.

Solar Panels Designed for Agriculture, Industries, Institutions, Schools

For large needs of drinking water, solar panels are now part of the desalination system, seen around the world on roofs or beside farms, factories, towns, schools, water districts, and apartment buildings.

Panels (aka “modules”) were developed by a trio of Bell Laboratory scientists in October 1955 and now consist of adjoined silicone-based photovoltaic cells encased in glass by a sealed aluminum frame. By 2009, solar-panel startups began adapting them to indirect solar desalination units for larger use.

One solar company(WaterFX) is linked to a Central Valley California water district serving farmers. Its 525-foot parabolic trough produces 14,000 gallons/day. Because additional units can be linked, 36 could boost production to 2,000,000 gallons/day. And instead of the going rate of $2,000 per acre-foot, it’s been $450. And units can be leased.

Solar’s electricity costs for pumps are dropping below natural gas rates. One solar company’s “farm” is charging Texas’ Austin Energy less than 5¢ per KwH on a 20-year power-purchase deal. It’s a trend projected to spread in the Southwest and Great Plains states.

For Smaller Needs, Solar Stills Are the Solution

For smaller needs such as villages, remote areas, or homes, solar stills are the solution that could save millions of lives around the globe. They can be homemade units out of a bowl, cup and plastic cover in arid places or billfold-sized collapsibles and ready-mades from kits.

Solar stills saved hundreds of lives in World War II, created for the U.S. Navy by Hungarian chemist-biophysicist Dr. Maria Telkes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seen in the recent film Life of Pi, stills are small and inflatable. Some 200,000 were produced during World War II, packed in lifeboats and aircraft rafts for survivors of torpedoed ships and crash landings.9,10

Solar’s well-known applicability to smaller needs—farms, villages, homes, heat exchangers, germinating seeds, inflatable tents, and even swimming pool shields—explains its rapid proliferation around the world in volume sales. They’re still based on Telke’s invention, the Gallowhur Chemical Corporation’s original patent, and the Higgins’ company wartime production.

How solar still operates was explained in sales literature: “Energy from the sun heats water inside the still to the point of evaporation. Water vapor rises, condenses on the inner glass surface of the still, and drips into a collection bottle. This process removes impurities such as salts and heavy metals as well as eliminates microbiological organisms.”

“Do-it-yourself” kits are staples for camping, sailing, and ordinary households and usually found online. A backyard still for those needing only three gallons of drinking water per day is $245 and prices are dropping regularly.11 One Missoula MT army-navy surplus store sells mint-condition WWII units for $20 each.12 (moc.loanull@kilapuotoseyah)

Demand for solar-panel desalination systems and stills is expected to spiral upward as today’s permanent water shortages increase, especially inland regions around the world. Fortunately, because armies of competitors always follow a successful product, prices undoubtedly will be slashed within a year or two. Even poor countries will be able to afford furnishing their people with solar systems despite corruption and financing armies to ensure power.

Alleviating water shortages will be the major issue for human survival and within this decade for many regions of the U.S. and the world as a water Armageddon approaches. Luckily, solar desalination right now is the only simple, cheap, and available solution to provide drinking water for most of the world’s population now. One energy report, just predicted renewables like solar soon will exceed $182,000,000,000 in global revenues and include solar desalination units:

“In the developing world…rooftop and community solar has arisen as a cheap and effective alternative to waiting around for their governments to connect them to the electrical grid.”

Assuredly, solar desalination systems cannot save most of a thirsty world in the next decades. But at the speed awareness is spreading—especially for have-nots—and with governmental clampdowns on freshwater exploitation and household conservation practices, at least a few hundred billion will not face a water Armageddon.

  1. Younos, Tamim and Tammy E. Parece, (2013), Water use and conservation, 21st Century Geography: A Reference Handbook. Stoltman, Joseph P., U.S. Geological Survey, SAGE Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks CA, 40, p. 447. []
  2. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1798, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990, II: p.109. []
  3. The Corporate Hijack of India’s Water.” []
  4. Shale Oil Fuels Indigenous Conflict in Argentina.” []
  5. Ellis, William S., (18 November 2014), Interview. [] []
  6. Kalogirou, Soteris A., (2009), Solar Energy Engineering: Processes and Systems, Elsevier/Academic Press, Burlington MA, pp. 453, 32, 22, 27, 18, 11, 17. []
  7. Solar Saga Continues: The Koch Brothers Weren’t the First to Try Stopping Solar.” []
  8. Delyannis, E., 2003, Historic background of desalination and renewable energies, Solar Energy, v. 75: 5, p. 357-66. [] []
  9. Maria Telkes, 95, an Innovator Of Varied Uses for Solar Power,” NYT. []
  10. Strahan, Jerry E., (1994), Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, p. 227. []
  11. Foster, Robert, (15, 18 November 2014), Interview. []
  12. Toupalik, Hayes, (25 November 2014), Interview. []
Barbara G. Ellis, Ph.D., is the principal of a Portland (OR) writing/pr firm and a professional writer. A long-time journalist, she was a journalism professor at (Oregon State University/Louisiana’s McNeese State University). She’s written dozens of articles for magazines, several books, was a nominee for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history (The Moving Appeal). A member and life-long political activist, she has been involved in geography and hydrology courses at Portland State University. Read other articles by Barbara.