Last month, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India, assured the country’s Supreme Court that all thermal power plants would comply with emission standards by 2022 – five years beyond the original deadline of 2017 – in response to a set of petitions filed by citizen groups. While efforts are being made to increase power generation from renewable sources like solar and wind, currently, close to 90 percent of India’s electricity is generated from thermal power plants. Coal fired power plants emitted close to 925 million tons of CO2 in FY 2017-2018.
Although issues related to emissions and air pollution are vital, an equally important, but relatively less talked about issue is the impact that India’s thermal power plants have on our freshwater resources, and conversely, the impact of scarce freshwater on power generation. The figure shows the level of water-stress in each state.
At present, 54 percent of India faces high to extremely high water-stress, and by 2030, India’s water supply is projected to fall below 50 percent of the demand. This has implications on the country’s electricity supply. Close to 90 percent of India’s power plants depend on freshwater for cooling, and several power plants are in regions with scarce water supply. This means that shortage of water can negatively impact the ability of the plant to generate power. Between 2013 to 2016, 14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utility companies experienced one or more shutdowns due to water shortages, costing these companies an estimated INR 91 billion in potential revenue from the sale of power. In addition, using scarce water resources to cool power plants leaves little freshwater available for other purposes to people living in the region.
Just like the emissions standards for thermal power plants laid out in 2015, similar standards were set in place for water usage. These government-mandated water-efficiency standards for thermal power plants included targets for specific water consumption, which means water that is withdrawn per MWh of electricity generated, and targets towards achieving zero waste water discharge. However, at present, power plants are not required to disclose how much water they use. Without accurate accounting, a reduction cannot be enforced.
Moving forward, India’s electricity sector needs to adopt a multi-pronged approach by enforcing existing mandates, advancing cooling technology, improving the efficiency of power plants, and accelerating clean energy.
Enforcing government mandates: The MoEFCC proposed specific water consumption targets for all fossil-fuel based thermal power plants to be met by December 2017. However, without a mandate for power plants to disclose water consumption, it will be impossible to enforce these targets. What gets measured, gets managed. Promoting transparency will increase accountability and make water risk easier to manage. Moreover, a standardisation of terminology, definition, and calculation methodologies for water consumption in the power sector will enable policymakers to access consistent, accurate and useable data for better decision-making.
Advancing cooling technology: Switching to alternative coolants such as seawater or wastewater when appropriate, and phasing out technologies that use the most water in favour of dry or hybrid cooling, especially in water-stressed regions will significantly reduce power sector’s exposure water risks.
Improving efficiency: A more energy-efficiency plant can generate more electricity per cubic metre of water used. Such improvements can indirectly reduce water withdrawal and consumption. Thermal power plants have also been a part of the Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT) scheme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) since the 1st cycle. It is important to ensure that improvements made in plant heat rates and other efficiency parameters are sustained; and newer opportunities to improve efficiency are explored.
Shifting to renewable energy: A more long-term approach lies in India’s commitment to transitioning to renewable energy. Solar PV and wind power generation not only have close to zero water consumption, but also have the added benefit of zero carbon emissions. Moving to such technologies, and increasing India’s energy mix to include more renewable energy, will diversify the country’s power mix and protect the power sector from risk. Electricity generation can still thrive in drought prone regions, and leave more freshwater available for domestic and agricultural needs.
In a recent report, Parched Power, that uses satellite images to quantify the Indian power sector’s reliance on freshwater, WRI calculates that 12.4 billion cubic metres of freshwater withdrawals could be reduced from India’s power sector needs if these solutions were implemented. Greater resource-efficiency and an increase in renewable energy generation will be imperative if India has to ensure risk-free power generation and meet its targets and commitments in the global arena.