India’s Thermal Power Plants Threatened By Water Shortages

By Tianyi Luo 18 September, 2018

WRI's Luo updates the status of water demands, risks & opportunities for India's power sector

40% of India's thermal power plants are located within water-scarce areas, often leading to power deficits; 70% will face high water stress by 2030
83% of India's electricity relies on thermal power but as it develops, water competition will grow & climate change will likely disrupt water supply for thermal utilities
Tech advances & transition to renewables must be a high priority for the Indian govt in order to attain energy stability but these ambitious changes will not happen overnight

This article was first published on World Resources Institute website on 16 January 2018. Click here to read the original article.


Water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power.

New WRI research finds that 40% of the country’s thermal power plants are located in areas facing high water stress, a problem since these plants use water for cooling. Scarce water is already hampering electricity generation in these regions—14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages between 2013-2016, costing the companies $1.4bn.

70% of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030

It’s an issue that’s only poised to worsen unless the country takes action—70% of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030 thanks to climate change and increased demands from other sectors.

Billions of Tons of Freshwater Consumed

Thermal power—power that relies on fuels like coal, natural gas and nuclear energy —provides India with 83% of its total electricity. While these power plants fail to disclose how much water they’re using in their operations, WRI developed a new methodology using satellite images and other data to calculate their water use.

Almost 90% of India’s thermal power generation depends on freshwater for cooling

Much of the water withdrawn by power plants is returned to the lakes and ponds from which it came, but a lot is also consumed, and not returned to its original source. We found that almost 90% of India’s thermal power generation depends on freshwater for cooling, and the industry is only growing thirstier. Thanks to increased energy demand and the growing popularity of freshwater-recirculating plants, which consume the most water of any thermal plant, freshwater consumption from Indian thermal utilities grew by 43% from 2011-2016, from 1.5 to 2.1bn m³ a year.

Power plants drank ~20% as much water as India’s 1.3bn citizens used in 2010…

To put this in perspective, India’s total domestic water consumption in 2010 was about 7.5bn m³, according to the Aqueduct Global Water Risk Atlas. That means power plants drank about 20% as much water as India’s 1.3bn citizens use for washing dishes, bathing, drinking and more.

40% of Thirsty Power Plants Are in Water-Stressed Areas

More than a third of India’s freshwater-dependent plants are located in areas of high or extremely high water stress. These plants have, on average, a 21% lower utilisation rate than their counterparts located in low or medium water-stress regions—lack of water simply prevents them from running at full capacity. Even when controlling the comparison analysis by unit age, fuel type and plant capacity, the observation was always the same: Plants in low- and medium-stress areas are more able to realise their power output potential than those in high water-stress areas.

Scarce Water Dries Up Revenue

There are practical and financial implications of power plants’ thirst. Between 2013 and 2016, India’s thermal plants failed to meet their daily electricity generation targets 61% of the time due to forced power plant outages. The reasons ranged from equipment failure to fuel shortages. Water shortages were the fifth largest reason for all forced outages—the largest environmental reason.

In 2016 alone, water shortages cost India about 14 terawatt-hours of potential thermal power generation, cancelling out more than 20% of the growth in the country’s total electricity generation from 2015.

In 2016 alone, water shortages cost India about 14 terawatt-hours of potential thermal power generation…

…cancelling out more than 20% of the growth in the country’s total electricity generation from 2015

The Way Forward

Thermal utilities will become even more vulnerable to water shortages, power outages & lost revenue

As India develops, water competition will continue to grow and climate change will likely disrupt reliable water supply. Thermal utilities will become even more vulnerable to water shortages, power outages and lost revenue.

But there’s a better path forward: Upgrading cooling systems, improving plant efficiency, and ultimately shifting toward water-free renewables like solar photovoltaics and wind can all curb water risks to power generation.

If India’s policies are enacted, it will save 12.4bn m³ of fresh water from being withdrawn by power plants

It’s worth noting that the government of India already has plans in place that give a reason for hope, such as the notification on power plant water withdrawal limits and the “40/60” renewable energy development plan. If these ambitious policies are enacted and enforced, our estimates show that India will save 12.4bn m³ of freshwater from being withdrawn by power plants. That’s a year’s worth of showers for 120mn people – more than live in the Philippines.

But change won’t happen overnight. Even with proactive policies in place, the key lies in their implementation. In the coming years, the Indian government, utility companies and international investors all have a role to play in making the power sector more resilient to water risks.


Further Reading

  • New Report: Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop? – Since our economy runs on water, no water means no growth but there is little conversation on this topic in Asia. To catalyse such conversations, this report provides an overview of the water-nomic challenges facing Asia
  • Water Trading: Shiyang River Basin Case – Successes in the Shiyang River Basin and other pilots have motivated the Chinese government to push a nation-wide water rights & water market system. Tsinghua University’s Professor Jianshi Zhao expands
  • Kazakhstan Focuses On Water Saving To Ease Tensions With China – Kazakhstan & China have a history of tension over the Ili river but with changing waterscapes Kazakhstan is restructuring its water management. See more on why & how it is doing this from Dr. Lei Xie & Professor Shaofeng Jia from the Chinese Academy of Science
  • Can Nepali Coffee Survive The Impacts Of Climate Change? – Coffee growers in Nepal’s hills are facing a double whammy; climate change and pests, which are also interlinked. Abhyaya Raj Joshi expands on the impacts so far & challenges to continue to produce
  • 2018 World Water Week: Key Takeaways – World Water Week 2018 saw exciting issues discussed from financing nature-based solutions to advancing water stewardship & valuing water. Check out more in our key takeaways from China Water Risk’s Woody Chan & Yuanchao Xu
  • Unconventional Water For Power Generation – The power sector is China’s largest industrial water user & is also exposed to water stress. Unconventional water sources such as mine water & municipal wastewater can help with this. China Water Risk’s Thieriot explores these sources
  • Wind & Sun: Relief For China’s Dry North – China’s North is parched but is home to a significant amount of coal reserves & arable land. Can wind & solar power help bring relief? CWR’s Thieriot on how but be warned, challenges remain
  • Coal: The Great Water Grab – Globally 45% of existing and 44% of proposed coal power plants are in located in high water stress areas. Greenpeace’s Harri Lammi on how this can exacerbate conflicts between agriculture, industry & urban water use
  • Mismatched: China & New Coal-Fired Plants – With 51% of China’s planned expansion in coal-fired power plants in water scarce areas WRI discuss how China must reconcile its rising demand for coal & its increasingly scarce water supply
  • China: No Water, No Power: HSBC asks if China has enough water to fuel its power expansion as China plans to add more than the total installed power capacity of the US, UK & Australia by 2030

Tianyi Luo
Author: Tianyi Luo
Tianyi is a Research Assistant in the Markets & Enterprise Program. He works on Aqueduct framework application, water-energy nexus analysis, and map generation and design. Tianyi also assists in Aqueduct tool development and database management. Prior to joining WRI, Tianyi worked as a research assistant developing satellite based model for evapotranspiration estimation, and supporting the work of water diplomacy and global cholera outbreak database. He also interned at HUISHANG GROUP in China assisting construction supervision and engineering design evaluation. Tianyi holds a M.S. in environmental and water resources engineering from Tufts University, and a B.E. in water supply and drainage engineering from Hefei University of Technology in China. Tianyi enjoys playing basketball in Virginia Highlands Park and painting in his apartment in Pentagon City.
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