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

51% of China's proposed coal power plants lie in areas of high to extreme water scarcity; could threaten farming
If plans go ahead, coal industry could withdraw >25% of Yellow River's annual available water for withdrawal
To meet the Three Red Lines, China must slow coal development & increase water efficiency programmes

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.

China Water StressClick on the map to view a larger version.

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

What is Water Stress_1This 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.

China Coal Water ProvincesClick on the map to view a larger version.

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.


Further Reading:

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

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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Betsy Otto
Author: Betsy Otto
Betsy Otto is the Director of the Aqueduct project in the Markets and Enterprise Program Aqueduct is a global water risk assessment and mapping tool to inform private and public sector investment and water management decisions. Betsy leads the Aqueduct project and works with the Aqueduct team to build out the tool and use it to engage business, NGOs and governments for positive change in managing water resources worldwide. See www.wri.org/aqueduct for more information. Betsy also works with staff across WRI on its broader water-related work.Betsy has over 20 years experience working on water issues with the non-profit, business and government communities. She brings strong experience in water resource management, ecosystem protection, and urban water systems Over the past two decades she has worked to promote sound land and water planning and urban water infrastructure systems that incorporate upstream ecosystem services, green infrastructure designs in cities, and integrate drinking water, stormwater and wastewater management. Prior to joining WRI, Betsy developed successful clean water and water supply programs for American Rivers in Washington, DC, where she worked closely with mayors, utilities, federal agencies and Congress to promote smart water policies and drive public and private investment toward more sustainable water infrastructure solutions.
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Andrew Maddocks
Author: Andrew Maddocks
Andrew is the lead on communications for Aqueduct, WRI’s tool for measuring and mapping water risks. He works to maximize the Aqueduct’s visibility and tell the project’s story to audiences ranging from businesses and investors to governments and international NGOs. See www.wri.org/aqueduct for more information, and read the team’s blog at http://aqueduct.wri.org/blog.Andrew previously worked in journalism and research institute communications. He has reported on global water, food, and energy issues for Circle of Blue, co-managed research, proposals, and outreach at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and researched journalism ethics for NPR’s ombudsman. Andrew holds a B.A. in conflict studies from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
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