Next Up for China and the World – Power Plants Compete for Shrinking Water Supplies

September 3, 2014

Cooling towers at power station use enormous quantities of water

Cooling towers at power station use enormous quantities of water

When people tell me about plans for huge fossil fuel development in the developing world, I just mention that there are some hard and fast limits in the natural system that will be showstoppers for the business as usual fossil-fuel model around the world.

The biggest limiting factor is water.

US Geological Survey:

Production of electrical power results in one of the largest uses of water in the United States and worldwide. Water for thermoelectric power is used in generating electricity with steam-driven turbine generators. In 2005, about 201,000 million gallons of water each day (Mgal/d) were used to produce electricity (excluding hydroelectric power). Surface water was the source for more than 99 percent of total thermoelectric-power withdrawals. In coastal areas, the use of saline water instead of freshwater expands the overall available water supply.
Thermoelectric-power withdrawals accounted for 49 percent of total water use, 41 percent of total freshwater withdrawals for all categories, and 53 percent of fresh surface-water withdrawals.

Aarhus University (Denmark):

Two new reports that focus on the global electricity water nexus have just been published. Three years of research show that by the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today. It is a clash of competing necessities, between drinking water and energy demand. Behind the research is a group of researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, Vermont Law School and CNA Corporation in the US.

In most countries, electricity is the biggest source of water consumption because the power plants need cooling cycles in order to function. The only energy systems that do not require cooling cycles are wind and solar systems, and therefore one of the primary recommendations issued by these researchers is to replace old power systems with more sustainable wind and solar systems.

The research has also yielded the surprising finding that most power systems do not even register how much water is being used to keep the systems going.
“It’s a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realise how much water they actually consume. And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon”, says Professor Benjamin Sovacool from Aarhus University.

Combining the new research results with projections about water shortage and the world population, it shows that by 2020 many areas of the world will no longer have access to clean drinking water. In fact, the results predict that by 2020 about 30-40% of the world will have water scarcity, and according to the researchers, climate change can make this even worse.

“This means that we’ll have to decide where we spend our water in the future. Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don’t have enough water to do both”, says Professor Benjamin Sovacool.


Water stresses in developing countries threaten to derail a massive build-out of coal capacity, according to a new analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The WRI estimates that about 1,400 GW of new coal capacity is being proposed worldwide, and of that, three-quarters of it are in China and India. Unfortunately, much of this capacity is planned for areas already under significant water stress. Most of China’s coal resources, for example, are located in the northern regions of the country, and about 60% of the planned new capacity will be located there to reduce transportation costs. Unfortunately, this portion of China has only 5% of the nation’s water resources, and power needs face steep competition from agricultural, industrial, and residential demands.

“If China builds all the plants now in the planning stages, China’s coal industry—including mining, chemical production, and power generation . . . could withdraw as much as 10 billion [cubic meters] of water annually by 2015,” the report notes. That total represents more than 25% of the water available for annual withdrawal from the Yellow River, a resource that is already under substantial stress.

China’s government recognizes the problem and is developing policy intended to increase water use efficiency and limit withdrawals to manageable levels. Still, the actions fall short of what is necessary, the report notes. More intensive measures to promote water recycling and wastewater treatment will need to be implemented.

India also faces significant problems. The country is proposing more than 500 GW of new coal capacity, though it is already one of the most water-stressed nations in the world. “Stressed water resources are already impacting power projects in India, causing delays and operational losses,” the report says. “For example, inadequate water supplies in the state of Chhattisgarh shut down the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Sipat plant in 2008.”


2 Responses to “Next Up for China and the World – Power Plants Compete for Shrinking Water Supplies”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    For how long have I been chanting COAL-CHINA-INDIA? To which we now must add WATER to get the full picture of impending disaster. (Some horses are never too dead to beat).

    I think that it’s ironic that the power companies have no idea how much water they’re consuming to cool power plants, just as the fossil fuel producers have no idea how much methane is coming from leaky wells and distribution-processing systems and the oil well folks are just flaring methane. Obviously, what you don’t want to know about and deal with today won’t cause you to spend money that would otherwise go to profit and growth.

    And as for those folks who won’t have water, I guess we can paraphrase a bit and say “Let them drink sand”?.

    PS: Sovacool understates the severity of the water problem a bit. A large proportion of the human population already doesn’t have access to clean drinking water or enough water for proper sanitation.

    PPS: We can solve this problem by using only natural gas fueled turbines to generate electricity—-don’t need water to cool them—-just shoot the heat (and CO2) up the stack. Plenty of gas around—-we just have to frack the whole frackin’ world and go get it. And the fossil fuel interests in the US can get rich by exporting LNG. Buy stock in Siemens—-as was just mentioned on another thread, they are going big into gas turbines for power generation. It’s a wonderful world for those who seek to profit from GROWTH.

  2. Phillip Shaw Says:

    Be sure to include nuclear on the list of energy technologies that are water hogs. As with coal-fired plants, nuclear plants use heat to generate steam to turn a generator – in fact, a case can be made that the principal difference between nuclear and coal is that nuclear generates heat through fission and coal uses combustion – the processes downstream from the reactor vessel (boiler) are essentially similar.

    Several times in recent years we’ve seen reactors have to shut down due to insufficient cooling water, or cooling water being too hot at the intake. These concurrences will become more frequent as water resources become more strained.

    This is one more reason that many people see emphasizing nuclear in future energy plans as being a Faustian bargain – the energy nuclear can provide comes with terrible costs. There are alternatives to nuclear for energy generation, but there is no alternative for the water we all need to survive.

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