Energy & Mining

Pass The Salt

Water Desalination & Electricity

While civilizations have flourished on the Arabian peninsula for centuries, Saudi Arabia’s thirst for power and water is unprecedented, and its solutions truly modern. While water sustains life, electricity sustains […]

While civilizations have flourished on the Arabian peninsula for centuries, Saudi Arabia’s thirst for power and water is unprecedented, and its solutions truly modern. While water sustains life, electricity sustains the water supply in the Kingdom, helping to power numerous desalination facilities, as well as air conditioning units, which represent a significant chunk of electricity consumption.

The Kingdom’s growing demand for energy and water has moved in tandem with economic and population expansion. According to ACWA Power’s President & CEO, Paddy Padmanathan, “Between 2004 and 2014, the demand for electricity has grown on average at about 9% per annum. The demand for water has grown on average at about 7%.” And while that pace of growth may seem extraordinary, it becomes instantly believable when correlated with GDP and population growth figures, the latter having grown from approximately 22.5 million in 2004 to nearly 30 million in 2014, and GDP, according to the World Bank, had grown from $258.74 billion in 2004 to an estimated $733.96 billion in current prices by end-2013.

Since 2002, the Electricity & Cogeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA) has had the honor of overseeing the power sector, with water desalination responsibility added in 2004. The two matters are closely bound, with most desalination plants integrated with power plants of various types.

On the electricity side, ECRA figures indicate that 50% of electricity consumption in the Kingdom goes to households, with air conditioning units accounting for 56% of all power consumed. In addition to efficiency programs, ECRA also has its hands full with a restructuring plan for the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC), which has enjoyed a monopoly over generation, transmission, and distribution.

On the water side, desalination represents approximately 50% of drinking water in the Kingdom, the rest sourced from surface water, often collected by dams following flash floods, and non-renewable groundwater. Desalination has been carried out since the early 1900s. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) is the largest public desalination company and responsible for the majority of desalination works in the country. It has approximately 26 plants—there are nine more in private hands—and a capacity of 3.6 million cubic meters per day. Total capacity in the Kingdom stands at 6 million cubic meters, although that is expected to grow to 7 million by end-2014 as new facilities come online.


According to ECRA, the average growth rate in electricity peak demand has been 8% over the past five years, which “reflects the required amount of investment,” according to Governor Abdullah Mohammad Al-Shehri, while the average growth rate of energy sales was 4%, representing “the revenue of the electricity sector.” With a high per capita electricity consumption rate, ECRA has recently focused its energies on boosting efficiency. With that in mind, ECRA has overseen a 2012 royal decree that mandates insulation in all buildings, as well as the establishment of the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center. Air conditioning units entering the Kingdom also now have to meet certain standards, a decision that was implemented in October 2013. “We expect these two mandates to reduce consumption in buildings, if implemented correctly, by about 50%,” said Governor Al-Shehri. Plans to encourage all power plants to use combined cycle systems could also boost efficiency on the supply side by as much as 50%, according to ECRA, while power plants located in coastal areas are being asked to draw up future expansion plans to also produce water, which could boost overall efficiency “to 80%,” added the Governor.

ECRA is also overseeing the unbundling of the SEC monopoly, with plans to break the generation side into four companies to boost competition. Private sector players will also have a larger role to play in upcoming years, although they currently make up just 10 GW of the Kingdom’s 55 GW capacity. But with plans to boost that overall figure to 120 GW by 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the private sector’s contribution could be crucial. ECRA also expect private participation on the transmission side, “where transmission lines could be built by the private sector,” said the Governor, adding that more competition would also be welcome on the distribution side.


Desalination provides approximately 50% of the Kingdom’s drinking water, and is a lifeline for larger, internal cities. First trialled in the early 1990s, capacity now stands at 6 million cubic meters per day, 3.6 million of which is produced by the SWCC. The SWCC has a network of 26 desalination plants, out of a total 35 in the country, with almost 7,000 kilometers of pipelines to transport water inland. But the Corporation is not done there, with a plan to boost that to 10,000 kilometers and launch entirely new plants. By end-2014, total capacity in the country will have reached 7 million cubic meters per day, according to the al-Eqtisadiah newspaper, following the opening of the a handful of new plants, including Ras Al Khair. The plant, built on the Gulf, will be the world’s largest seawater desalination plant when fully operational, pumping out 1 million cubic meters of drinking water, as well as 2,600 MW of power—desalination plants are often dual-purpose and built integrated with power plants in the Kingdom, and can be a solid source of electricity. The Kingdom’s desalination plants use multi-stage flash distillation (MSF), multi-effect distillation (MED), and reverse osmosis (RO) technologies, the former two often powered by integrated generation facilities, and the latter connected to the grid. The SWCC is also exploring the employment of alternative energy facilities when developing new desalination plants, with the Al Khafji plant, being developed in a joint venture with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), set to be the first solar energy desalination plant in the Kingdom.