By Tania Ullah
In April, the Chinese government made an announcement that it is stopping the construction of new coal-fired power plants that amount to a whopping 105 GW of electricity generation. While this planned shut-down is likely a response to the slowdown of the Chinese economy, it is also China’s biggest chance for sustainable energy development. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, introducing more clean technology in the energy sector would also provide China with an opportunity to save its precious water resources.
With over 20% of the world’s population, the nation only has seven percent of the water reserves needed to sustain food production, industrial output, and domestic use. Surface water sources are also shrinking. China used to be home to over 4,000 lakes, but about half have disappeared in recent decades due to increased consumption and climate change.i In the arid North China Plain alone, where much of the agricultural land and power plants are located, increased pumping of groundwater is starting to deplete aquifers. Additionally, deserts are expanding, with over one-third of mainland Chinese regions carrying water resources comparable to the desertification seen in the Middle East and North Africa.ii It is abundantly clear that China needs to intervene to save itself from a water crisis.
What do coal plants have to do with water? A hidden development challenge
China is the largest coal user in the world and nearly 70% of their electricity production comes from the fossil fuel.iii The use of coal receives much attention – as it should – because it makes China the greatest greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor in the world, emitting more than 25% of total global GHG emissions in 2012.iv However, it isn’t just emissions that make them dangerous. Coal-fired power plants have the additional drawback of being a large consumer of freshwater sources, and almost one-fifth of China’s water goes to coal mining, processing, ash control, and cooling in power plants.v What the government is planning to do to curtail water use for energy generation, like phasing out plants that have once-through cooling (i.e. use water once and don’t recycle it) and constructing new plants by shores to use seawater instead, are not enough to address the problem. These cooling methods are less efficient and still require large water withdrawals. Furthermore, the water that is returned to the source after being used is significantly heated and can damage the local ecosystem.
Clean energy as a solution to China’s water problem
The key to addressing the water crisis is for China to shift toward less “thirsty” or water-intensive energy generation. Wind and solar are renewable technologies vital to reducing reliance on water for energy, not only GHG emissions. For every MWh of electricity generated, wind turbines and utility scale solar plants consume almost no water, while almost 250 gallons/MWh are consumed for coal-fired electricity generation.vi To put that into context, approximately 6,000 Olympic-size swimming pools of water are required to power all of the country for a single day using traditional coal-fired plants. China has ambitions for water-reliant power to fall from 94% to 72% by 2050vii, but this goal is unlikely to be achieved without a significant increase in solar and wind capacity.
What is stopping China from taking this opportunity?
China’s hunger for energy power is unlikely to wane anytime soon. The industrial sector is growing at a rapid pace and it has a long way to go to catch up to the United States, which consumes four times the energy per capita of China.viii What is keeping China beholden to coal is the easy credit given to companies to build coal-fired power plants and local governments’ reliance on these plants to create jobs.ix The state’s heavy regulation of the energy market is guaranteeing profits for plants even with falling coal prices. Small domestic incentives exist for renewables, but what Beijing desperately needs to do is create and enforce policies to make more room for wind- and solar-generated electricity on the grid. Such an effort will help the country meet its long-term commitments to save both water and energy resources.
Tania Ullah is a mechanical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), conducting research on energy- and water-efficiency of buildings. As her career progresses, she hopes to draw more needed attention to the intersection of water and energy issues. Tania was a CELI Fellow in Spring 2016.
i Brooks, Nina. 2016. “Impending Water Crisis in China”. Blog. The Arlington Institute: World’s Biggest Problems. Accessed May 12. http://www.arlingtoninstitute.org/wbp/global-water-crisis/457
iii Shifflett, Susan Chan, Jennifer L Turner, Luan Dong, Ilaria Mazzocco, and Bai Yunwen. 2015. China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap: A Global Choke Point Report. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. p10. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/WATER-ENERGY-FOOD%20ROADMAP.pdf
iv Liu, Zhu. 2016. China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2015. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. p1. http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/carbon-emissions-report-2015-final.pdf
v Shifflett, et al., China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap: A Global Choke Point Report. p2.
vi Macknick, Jordan, Robin Newmark, Garvin Heath, and KC Hallett. 2011. A Review of Operational Water Consumption and Withdrawal Factors for Electricity Generating Technologies. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. pp12-13. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy11osti/50900.pdf
vii Tan, Debra, Feng Hu, Hubert Thieriot, and Dawn McGregor. 2015. Towards a Water & Energy Secure China: Tough Choices Ahead in Power Expansion with Limited Water Resources. Hong Kong: China Water Risk. p27. http://chinawaterrisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Towards-A-Water-Energy-Secure-China-CWR0415.pdf
viii Ibid. p4.
ix Forsythe, Michael. 2016. “China Curbs Plans for More Coal-Fired Power Plants”. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/26/business/energy-environment/china-coal.html
Photo Credit: Will Clayton via Flickr