Drought and continued reliance on electric generation that uses water for cooling are causing some of India’s power plants to shut down for days and even months at a time, a problem that is expected to worsen, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute.
“Water shortages shut down power plants across India every year. When power plants rely on water sourced from scarce regions, they put electricity generation at risk and leave less water for cities, farms, and families. Without urgent action, water will become a choke point for India’s power sector,” said O.P. Agarwal, CEO of World Resources Institute (WRI) India, in the paper “Parched Power,” released on Jan. 16.
India lost 5.87 billion kilowatt-hours of power generation in 2016 due to the lack of water, Piyush Goyal, India’s power minister, told parliament last year. The loss in 2015 was about 5 billion kWh. In its own study, WRI found that the generation lost was more than double those amounts—at 14 billion kWh, enough to power Sri Lanka—and said the generation lost doubled from 6.8 billion kWh in 2015.
The situation is getting worse. The water-starved nation has only 4% of the world’s water resources and is expected to have a 1.6 billion population by 2050.
A Greenpeace India analysis estimates that the total freshwater consumption of coal power plants in India is 4.6 billion cu meters per year, enough to meet the basic water needs of 251 million people.
Freshwater consumption will more than double if all the proposed plants are built to meet the demand for power that is expected to surge by nearly 100% by 2026-27, even as climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts and socioeconomic development will intensify local water competition, WRI says.
“In the coming decades, we expect more water-shortage-induced power shutdowns, unless steps are taken to reduce these risks,” according to WRI.
WRI found that 18 thermal plants—generally coal and nuclear plants—had shutdowns because of a lack of water in 2016. One of those, the Parli coal plant, was completely shut down for three months and partially shut down for another 200 days.
New Indian thermal power plants built since 2000 have used closed-cycle cooling systems, instead of once-through cooling systems, Goyal told parliament. Reducing the water in the coal-ash waste systems is another way to conserve water.
The measures have halved the use of water in closed-cycle plants. Power plants within 50 kilometers of a sewage treatment plants also must use treated wastewater, Goyal says.
A Greenpeace analysis, released in June, found that only 87% of India’s power plants have access to wastewater supplies.
To meet the quantum jump in demand for power, Goyal says an additional 86,400 MW from conventional fossil-fuel sources will be added to the existing capacity of 264,624 MW through 2022. Another goal is to augment that output by 175,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022. Currently, renewables comprise about 18% of the energy mix.
“Solar PV and wind power can thrive in the same water-stressed areas where thermal plants struggle, so accelerating renewables can lower India’s water risk,” says Deepak Krishnan, manager of WRI India’s energy program and co-author of the report.
But even more can be done, says Ivaturi N. Rao, the head of environment and climate change for Tata Power, India’s largest integrated power company.
“The Government of India has recently mandated limits for specific water consumption at thermal power plants, which is a critical step forward,” he said in a statement. “However, they should also create policy incentives for water conservation. This will help encourage water efficiency and innovation across the power sector.”
In its study, WRI found that 12.4 billion cu m of freshwater withdrawals could be reduced through 2027 from India’s power-sector needs if proposed cooling mandates were fully implemented and aggressive renewable targets completely achieved.