There’s a looming water crisis coming for China’s water-hungry coal plants, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Roughly sixty percent of China’s power plants (most of them running on coal) are located in Northern China, but only 20 percent of the country’s fresh water is found in the North.
The mismatch is a problem on a variety of levels. The “big five” state-owned utilities that operate many of these power plants are financially exposed to the water constraint, particularly because the Chinese government has set a cap on the country’s growing water use. And making these coal plants consume less water with the standard technology could ironically decrease the plants’ power efficiencies and boost their carbon emissions.
But the water constraint will only continue to grow unless the utilities do something about it. The report says that by 2030 the amount of water used by China’s power sector could grow to 124 billion cubic meters — or even 190 billion in an aggressive estimate — from 102 billion cubic meters in 2010, due a potential tripling of the country’s power plants. 190 billion cubic meters of water would constitute a quarter of the country’s capped water supply in 2030.
The good news is there are some options for the utilities. They could build more of their future power plants outside of the North and particularly in some of the more wet regions. In addition, clean power like solar panels and wind turbines don’t require as much water resources, so these renewable technologies could start to look more competitive to utilities. These options could also be more attractive than retrofitting the plants to the more water efficient, but more power inefficient, kind which would cost them collectively $20 billion for 100 GW.
There could also be next-generation technologies that could help solve this water, power plant problem in China, too. Are any of the cleantech companies out there working on innovative solutions that could help?
As the world gets 9 billion people by 2050, and countries like China, Brazil and India start to consume more energy per capita, water will become an increasingly constrained resource. New water management, conservation, and recycling technologies will emerge to meet this challenge.