Mismatched: China & New Coal-Fired Plants
By Tianyi Luo, Betsy Otto, Andrew Maddocks 10 September, 2013
WRI explains how China reconcile two powerful, converging trends: energy demand & resource scarcity
To maintain its economic growth and provide for its massive population, China must reconcile two powerful, converging trends: energy demand and resource scarcity. One prime example of this tension is the country’s coal use and water supply.
According to a new WRI analysis, more than half of China’s proposed coal-fired power plants are slated to be built in areas of high or extremely high water stress. If these plants are built, they could further strain already-scarce resources, threatening water security for China’s farms, other industries, and communities.
As of July 2012, China’s government planned 363 coal-fired power plants for construction across China, with a combined generating capacity exceeding 557 gigawatts (for reference, installed capacity at the end of 2012 was 758 GW). This amounts to an almost 75 percent increase in coal-fired generating capacity. China already ranks as world’s largest coal consumer, accounting for almost 50 percent of global coal use.
Using WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, we overlaid the locations of these proposed coal plants on our water stress maps for China. We found that 51 percent of China’s new coal-fired power plants would be built in areas of high or extremely high water stress.
Coal Plants Would Add More Stress to Already-Stressed Areas
This finding is especially troubling because coal-related industries—mining production, coal-to-chemical, and power generation—are extremely water-intensive. Coal mines depend on water to extract, wash, and process the coal, while coal-burning power plants need water to create steam and cool generating systems. If all of the proposed plants are built, the coal industry–including mining, chemical production, and power generation–could withdraw as much as 10 billion cubic meters of water annually by 2015. That’s more than one-quarter of the water available for withdrawal every year from the Yellow River.
Other major takeaways from our analysis include:
- 60 percent of the total proposed generating capacity is concentrated in six provinces. Those provinces, however, only account for 5 percent of China’s total water resources.
- In those six provinces, competition for water between domestic, agricultural, and industrial users is already high: 60 percent of the proposed generating capacity is in areas of high or extremely high water stress.
Managing China’s Water-Energy Nexus
The Chinese government has also outlined three national goals for water, called the “Three Red Lines.” These “lines” aim to cap annual maximum water use at 700 billion cubic meters (about 25 percent of annual available supply, increase irrigation use efficiency to 60 percent by 2030, and protect water quality to maximize sustainable development.
Those quantity, efficiency, and quality targets are an important first step toward addressing the water-energy trade-off at the heart of China’s coal development, but it’s important that the country go further. To meet its water cap targets, China needs to it slow down coal development and introduce a combination of significant water saving and efficiency programs into the coal industry.
How China responds to its coal conundrum will impact not only the country’s water supply, but its farms, ecosystems, other industries, and communities. Will it build out the proposed coal-fired generating capacity without major technology upgrades and exceed water red line targets? Or will it carefully manage water resources and potentially limit coal capacity? Prioritizing water resource management in its decision-making will better position China to balance its competing economic and resource demands.
- For locations of proposed coal-fired power plants across the world, read WRI’s Global Coal Risk Assessment
- For Analysis, Opinions, Interviews & Research Reports – Check out Intelligence by Sector: Power
On Water-Energy Nexus (WEN):
- Water: Shaping China’s Food & Energy Choices: Debra talks about key issues & new trends surfacing from the Fortune Global Forum roundtable and why she thinks the 12FYP Strategic Emerging Industries are the real Magnificent Seven
- Water for Coal: Thirsty Miners?: With up to 83% of China’s coal reserves in water stressed & scarce regions, the recent CLSA report asks if there is enough water to grow coal production. If not, what are our options? Debra Tan expands
- 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
- China Energy Gets WET: China Water Risk’s Ying Shen on three broad takeaways from the US-China water-energy roundtables hosted by the Wilson Center & Greennovation Hub in Beijing
On Improving Water Efficiency in WEN:
- Spend To Quench Coal Thirst:Can China manage to balance her limited water resources & coal expansion? Debra Tan argues that the sector can spend to quench coal thirst with consolidation or more investment in aggressive water savings tech
Read more from Tianyi Luo →
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