Big Coal’s War on Water

January 13, 2014

They need the water. Your baby will have to look elsewhere. STFU.


“I believe we’re at a point where we see light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said. Water samples had shown positive signs that traces of a coal-cleaning chemical were slowly fading from the supply for nine counties, he said.

There was still no timeline on when residents could use their water again, however, forcing residents and businesses to get creative on how they could safely cook, wash their hands and wash their clothes.


WITH so much focus on carbon emitted from the nation’s power plants, another environmental challenge related to electricity generation is sometimes overlooked: the enormous amount of water needed to cool the power-producing equipment

In the United States almost all electric power plants, 90 percent, are thermoelectric plants, which essentially create steam to generate electricity. To cool the plants, power suppliers take 40 percent of the fresh water withdrawn nationally, 136 billion gallons daily, the United States Geological Survey estimates. This matches the amount withdrawn by the agricultural sector and is nearly four times the amount for households.

Battles for water among these competing interests are becoming more common, and power plants are not always winning. A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed many examples from 2006 to 2012 of plants that had temporarily cut back or shut down because local water supplies were too low or too warm to cool the plant efficiently.

Charleston Gazette:

 In a Friday statement, the group Appalachian Voices made a connection between the ongoing regional water crisis and the coal industry that went beyond just the chemical involved.

“An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing,” the group said. “One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water.”

At the same time, shrinking revenues and declining investments in public infrastructure have led more and more small communities to contract with private companies like West Virginia American Water to provide drinking water services.

“Driven by profit margins, companies have aggressively consolidated their businesses, leading them to serve ever larger distribution networks from only a handful of treatment plants and drinking water intakes,” Appalachian Voices said. That’s how, the group said, one chemical spill into one river cut off drinking water access to roughly 16 percent of West Virginia’s population.


Inner Mongolia’s rivers are feeding China’s coal industry, turning grasslands into desert. In India, thousands of farmers have protested diverting water to coal- fired power plants, some committing suicide.

The struggle to control the world’s water is intensifying around energy supply. China and India alone plan to build $720 billion of coal-burning plants in two decades, more than twice today’s total power capacity in the U.S., International Energy Agency data show. Water will be boiled away in the new steam turbines to make electricity and flush coal residue at utilities from China Shenhua Energy Co. (1088) to India’s Tata Power Co. (TPWR) that are favoring coal over nuclear because it’s cheaper.

With China set to vaporize water equal to what flows over Niagara Falls each year, and India’s industrial water demand growing at twice the pace of agricultural or municipal use, Asia’s most populous nations will have to reconsider energy projects to avoid conflict between cities, farmers and industry.

“You’re going to have a huge issue with the competition between water, energy and food,” said Vineet Mittal, managing director of Welspun Energy Ltd., the utility unit of Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management LLC-backed Welspun Group. “Water is something everyone should be probing every chief executive about,” he said in an interview.

“Power is a very good example of the risk investors can potentially face,” Giulio Boccaletti, a partner heading McKinsey’s water resource economics practice, said in an Aug. 30 interview. “A problem with water can leave you with a stranded asset.”

China and India account for than 60 percent of the world’s coal-fired power plants on the drawing boards by 2035, capable of producing about 805 gigawatts. China’s alone will consume 82 billion cubic meters of water a year by 2030, second only to the nation’s farmers, McKinsey & Co. forecast.

Coal is currently running more than 40 percent of the planet’s electricity generation plants, which consume on average three times as much water as natural gas-fired stations per unit of power produced, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Nuclear plants use even more water than coal units.

Beside needing water to produce steam, it’s also used in condensing and to process waste deposited in ponds. Water is used in coal mining to remove impurities and transport the fuel through pipelines as slurry.

Some of the water can be recycled or discharged back to its source. However, a shortage can shut a plant or force it to compete for farming and drinking water.

Utilities “assume the water is there,” Peter C. Evans, director for global strategy and planning at General Electric Co. (GE), the biggest maker of power-plant turbines, told a conference in June in Tokyo. “They actually will not be able to build as many coal plants as the projections suggest.” 


A government plan to boost the coal industry and build more power plants near mines will lift industrial demand for water in Inner Mongolia 141 percent by 2015 from 2010, causing aquifers to dry up and deserts to expand, according to Greenpeace and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources. About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.


34 Responses to “Big Coal’s War on Water”

  1. The amount of water use for nuclear is on average slightly higher than coal according to this Congressional report. ( open loop) (P. 37) less than 1% of thermal PP is dry. Thermal PP water withdrawal is as great as all agriculture. Significant, because generation must be curtailed when water flow drops or water temperature is too high. Only a fraction, 3% of the fresh water, is lost due to evaporation. The amount of water lost to thermal PP is 20% of non agricultural water. An increase in drought coupled with demand growth spells trouble. Dry and hybrid cooling methods suffer a cost and efficiency penalty. In the hottest weather, dry cooling may suffer as much as 25 % efficiency loss. Dry cooling is least effective where it is needed most.

  2. Here is an ice reference with FAQ on a call for a coal moratorium from league of women voters.
    The entire subject is an example of growth colliding with natural limits. Technical panaceas are exhausted. Time to pay the piper.

  3. […] News cares about clean water, for themselves and their babies. As for anyone else,  let them drink Kool […]

  4. […] I have continued to report, we can have fossil fuels, but we can’t continue to have fossil fuels, and fresh, clean, water, […]

  5. […] natural gas and oil are available in formerly untappable deposits, using new fracking technology.  Like the CW on coal use,  the grand vision runs afoul of pesky humans and their petulant demands for “drinking […]

  6. […] natural gas and oil are available in formerly untappable deposits, using new fracking technology. Like the CW on coal use, the grand vision runs afoul of pesky humans and their petulant demands for “drinking water” and […]

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