You Can Have More Fossil Fuel. Or You Can Have Water. Your Choice. Part 1.

March 27, 2013

The reason we call deniers deniers, is that they solve problems by simply pretending they don’t exist. Anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist. No problem.

Another problem that simply does not show up on climate denial radar screens is the problem of water supplies. We constantly read glowing press accounts about plans for massive development of new exotic fossil fuel sources in the US, very often in western states, with no balanced consideration of some very serious constraints on those processes. One big one is water.

We’ve seen numerous instances in the past decade of power plants being shut or derated during the very times we need them most, big heat waves in the summertime, because they can’t continue to operate at full power without boiling away the rivers that cool them, or cooking all the fish therein.  Likewise, we also continually hear that China and other developing countries are going to continue building thousands of new thermal power plants, in the face of already critically limited water supplies.

It ain’t going to happen. The evidence is all around. I discussed the issue at the American Geophysical Union with water expert Peter Glick – part one above, part two tomorrow.

Scientific American:

SHANGHAI — The world’s biggest coal consumer now has a new incentive to take a cleaner energy path, as China’s coal-fired power plants are drying up the country’s already scarce water resources.

A report published today by Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes that the top five Chinese power generators — China Huaneng Group, China Datang Corp., China Huadian Corp., China Guodian Corp. and China Power Investment Corp. — have hundreds of gigawatts of coal-fired power plants in the country’s dry north and that retrofitting them with water-efficient solutions could cost billions of dollars.

“Today, 85 percent of China’s power generation capacity is located in water-scarce regions and 15 percent of this still relies on water-intensive, once-through cooling technologies,” said Maxime Serrano Bardisa, one of the report’s authors as well as Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s water analyst.

At the same time, the nation is seeing less and less water. According to separate research by the China Environmental Forum, an initiative of the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ global sustainability and resilience program, China’s total water reserves dropped 13 percent from 2000 to 2009, with the water shortage being particularly severe in the north.

The coal industry has played a big role in the shortage, the report says. Northern China has 20 percent of the country’s freshwater supply, but its coal mining and coal-fired power generators are thirsty for water. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that in 2010 alone, the two sectors combined withdrew 98 billion cubic meters of fresh water across the region — or nearly 15 percent of China’s total freshwater withdrawals in the year.

If the five Chinese power giants continue their current development of coal-fired plants, the report predicts, the sector’s water withdrawals will exceed 25 percent of China’s 2030 target to cap its national water withdrawals at 700 billion cubic meters per year. Some Chinese regions have already extracted underground water faster than it is being replenished, and any increase in water withdrawals could further push China away from an environmentally sustainable future.

There are solutions to ease the water stress, but each comes with major trade-offs.

For instance, if China’s coal-fired power producers move their future buildup from the dry north to parts of the water-abundant south like Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, they will have less trouble with water use but more challenges to sell the electricity they produce, as those regions are not industrial hubs. And replacing coal-fired power plants’ once-through cooling systems with water-saving solutions like air-cooled systems will decrease the plants’ thermal efficiency and as a result increase greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes.

Fixes for this carry a high price tag. The report says that if Chinese policymakers were to force the retrofitting of existing once-through cooling systems, more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants would be affected at a cost of $20 billion — not including the cost of a 10 GW reduction in power generation capacity due to lower efficiency.


The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that India has shale gas reserves of 290 trillion cubic feet, of which 63 tcf is recoverable. That would be enough to meet India’s natural gas demand for 33 years, says the country’s Petroleum Ministry.

Challenges to India’s shale development include land acquisition issues and environmental concerns.

“The extraction process requires large contiguous tracts of land, as well as plenty of water supply, which might present a problem in a country like India,” says Vandana Hari of Platts Asia office.


The northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana have all of the ingredients for groundwater depletion: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms, which account for about 95 percent of groundwater use in the region.

Data provided by India’s Ministry of Water Resources suggested groundwater use was exceeding natural replenishment, but the regional rate of depletion was unknown. Rodell and colleagues had their case study. The team analyzed six years of monthly GRACE gravity data for northern India to produce a time series of water storage changes beneath the region’s land surface.

They found that groundwater levels have been declining by an average of one meter every three years (one foot per year). More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States.

“We don’t know the absolute volume of water in the Northern Indian aquifers, but GRACE provides strong evidence that current rates of water extraction are not sustainable,” said Rodell. “The region has become dependent on irrigation to maximize agricultural productivity, so we could be looking at more than a water crisis.”

The loss is particularly alarming because it occurred when there were no unusual trends in rainfall. In fact, rainfall was slightly above normal for the period.

10 Responses to “You Can Have More Fossil Fuel. Or You Can Have Water. Your Choice. Part 1.”

  1. astrostevo Says:

    I’ll take water thanks! Much healthier for everyone.

    “Only when the last river has been polluted and the last sea turned to acid will we realise we cannot drink petroleum liquid fossils?”

    – With apologies to the Native American Cree peoples.

    (Coincidentally just today read a good article in a borrowed NewScientist magazine –“The Arab Spring Runs Dry” by Debora Mackenzie (pages 32-33, issue 21st April 2012) about Jordan’s depleted aquifers, teh plight of the Azraq oasis and the environmental and other problems that nation faces with refugees incl. new wave of Syrian refugees plus exacerbated by Global Overheating.)

  2. daryan12 Says:


    Also worth remembering that the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels, be it via Shale Gas, Tight oil (often mistaken called Shale oil) or Tar Sands also require somewhat considerable amounts of water. This water is needed both for the purposes of extraction, but also to “flush” away all the crap they get out of the ground with said oil/gas.

    One of the reasons I’m hugely skeptical of the supposed maximum potential output via these sources (as suggested by the supporters of such projects), is the fact that nobody has explained to me how they are going to extract that much water without causing major water shortages. Not to mention what they do with the all the waste water, short of turning certain rivers (which millions of farmers and cities rely on for drinking water) into vast open sewers.

  3. daryan12 Says:


    And I would also note, as you mentioned, there are alternative means of cooling thermal power stations other than using fresh water. You can use dry cooling (which does reduce the thermal efficiency somewhat aside from the extra cost of installing such plant) or substitute salt water from the sea (of course that requires building the plant next to the shoreline! Not much good for an existing plant in the middle of China!).

    Is should be noted that water issues are already major problem in China. They are actually building a massive aqueduct (about 1000 km’s long!) between the North & South of the country to ease water shortages.

    • andrewfez Says:

      There’s a nuclear power plant in Morro Bay, CA that I think is being decommissioned as it does use sea water cooling, but the system is causing harm to some of the sea life in the Bay.

      I stopped there for the night, when going up the PCH-1/101. It didn’t seem like it was working when I was there, or at least there wasn’t any steam coming out of the stacks.

      • daryan12 Says:


        I’m not suggesting that there are no issues related to seawater related cooling of a power station, indeed it causes a number of complications.

        However, such a tactic is quite as vulnerable to climate change related factors….at least so long as sea levels don’t rise considerably!

  4. Wes Says:

    Does anyone else see what I see here – a planet teetering on the edge of ecosystem collapse? That’s kind of a rhetorical question considering the expertise of the usual readers of this blog. I get this mental image of Thelma and Louise approaching the Canyon edge at full speed, whooping and hollering. It’s all great fun until that sudden stop at the bottom. You might note there was no sequel to Thelma and Louise, for obvious reasons. That’s a troubling thought applied to the planetary version.

  5. Martin Lack Says:

    I researched and wrote a 5000-word essay on the water resource problems of the Yellow River basin in northern China* (birth place of Chinese civilisation and current home to far more than its fair share of China’s industry etc). This highlighted why it is that China is having to build the colossal aqueduct that makes all previous schemes built anywhere else seem ludicrously small by comparison. Groundwater mining is happening big time in China – as indeed it is in many other places around the World.

    * I summarised my essay (including lots of nice colour illustrations), and posted it/them in 4 parts on my blog, starting here:

  6. […] You Can Have More Fossil Fuel. Or You Can Have Water. Your Choice.: Part 1. (Climate Crocks): […]

  7. […] You Can Have More Fossil Fuel. Or You Can Have Water. Your Choice. Part 1. (video below, text at link above): […]

  8. […] You Can Have More Fossil Fuel. Or You Can Have Water. Your Choice. Part 1. (video below, text at link above): […]

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