Energy Consumption and Water Production Cost of Conventional and Renewable-Energy-Powered Desalination Processes

Ali Al-Karaghouli, Lawrence L. Kazmerski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

867 Scopus Citations


Desalination technologies improve water quality, greatly reduce water shortage problems, and improve quality of life and economic status. Two main technologies are currently used in water desalination: thermal (phase-change) processes and membrane processes. The primary thermal distillation processes include multistage flash distillation (MSF), multi-effect distillation (MED), and vapor compression (VC). The VC process encompasses two types: mechanical (MVC) and thermal (TVC). The common membrane desalination processes include reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodialysis (ED and EDR). Energy cost, operational and maintenance cost, and capital investment are the main contributors to the water production cost of any of these processes. The energy cost is responsible for about 50% of the produced water cost. For thermal distillation processes (MSF, MED, and TVC), two energy forms are required for the operation: (1) low-temperature heat, which represents the main portion of the energy input and is usually supplied to the system by a number of external sources (e.g., fossil fuel, waste energy, nuclear, solar) and (2) electricity, which is used to drive the system's pumps and other electrical components. For the MVC thermal distillation process, only electricity is needed. For membrane processes (RO and ED), only electricity is required as an energy input. Renewable energy systems such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal technologies are currently used as energy suppliers for desalination systems. These renewable resources are now a proven technology and remain economically promising for remote regions, where connection to the public electric grid is either not cost effective or feasible, and where water scarcity is severe. As the technologies continue to improve, and as fresh water becomes scarce and fossil fuel energy prices rise, renewable energy desalination becomes more viable economically. The technical features, energy consumption, environmental considerations, and potential of renewable energy use in driving the main desalination processes are reviewed and analyzed in this paper. The current and projected costs of water produced from conventional and renewable-energy-driven processes are discussed and compared.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)343-356
Number of pages14
JournalRenewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews
StatePublished - 2013

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5900-57433


  • Distillation processes
  • Membrane processes
  • Renewable energy
  • Water desalination


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