WASHINGTON, October 9, 2013- To meet its growing energy needs, China is planning to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the next few years. However, developing its coal industry could have a devastating effect on China’s freshwater resources; threatening clean drinking water supplies, industry, farming, and the environment.
According to the Associated Press (AP), 68.4 percent of China’s total energy in 2011 came from coal. Compare this to the U.S., where total energy from coal was 37 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Already the world’s largest coal consumer, accounting for almost 50 percent of total global coal use, in July 2012 the Chinese government announced that it planned to build 363 new coal-fired power plants, increasing the country’s coal-powered generating capacity by 75 percent.
While expanding coal-related industries is the less costly and most efficient way to address China’s energy problems, coal is extremely water intensive at every stage from extraction to chemical processing to power generation.
In areas where water is already scarce, development of a local coal industry can cause a situation where limited water resources are further strained, affecting local communities, farms, and other industries.
“China has two different conflicting goals it’s trying to meet: increasing energy capacity and managing its water resources more efficiently,” said Betsy Otto of the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global environmental think tank, to the Thompson Reuters Foundation earlier in September. “The country’s energy plans and water plans need to be coordinated more closely.”
It does not seem, however, that the Chinese government is heeding this advice, as it has announced plans for coal energy, water conservation, and air pollution that conflict with each other.
Cheap energy v. water
Even though China has substantial water resources, demographics, population, geography and politics make water a complicated issue. From a water supply standpoint, therefore, China’s ambitious coal development project is likely to be unsustainable.
For one thing, water and coal resources are unevenly distributed within China, with rich coal deposits in the dry, water-stressed north and abundant water in the less mineral-rich south.
Additionally, even though China has the fifth largest water supply in the world, the average amount of water available per person per year (1,730 cubic meters) is near to what the United Nations considers the baseline for water stress: the point when demand for water for communities, agriculture, industry, and the environment exceeds the available supply or where poor water quality restricts its use.
WRI defines high-risk water stress areas as those where 40 percent or more of the renewable water supply is used every year; it defines extremely high-risk areas as those where over 80 percent of the available water supply is withdrawn yearly.
The Washington, DC based think tank reports that over half of the coal power plants proposed by China would be located in areas with either high or extremely high water stress. According to WRI’s analysis, 60 percent of the proposed generating capacity will be concentrated in six provinces containing only five percent of China’s total water resources.
Moreover, according to a recent Greenpeace China report, if all the 363 proposed plants are built, by 2015 China’s coal industry could withdraw almost 10 billion cubic meters of water every year.
“That’s more than one-quarter of the water available for withdrawal every year from the Yellow River,” writes Tianyi Luo for WRI.
In high water stress areas, coal mining and coal-fired power plants will require large amounts of water that, according to the Greenpeace China study, will exceed or severely challenge each area’s total water capacity. This will result in the coal industry using up a large portion of water currently destined to non-industrial uses including drinking water, farming and conservation.
In fact, the study predicts that if the proposed plants are built, by the end of 2015 the water requirements (94.1% to 140.8%) in the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Ningxia will either exceed or severely strain the area’s water supply capacity.
It is unclear, however, how many of the proposed plants will actually be built, as the Chinese government has also recently announced plans to reduce air pollution and water usage, both of which will affect the building of future coal-fired power plants.
The Chinese Government announced earlier this month that it will ban future coal-fired power plants in three essential industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, reported the Associated Press. The bans are part of an effort to curb air pollution and reduce coal’s portion of total energy use to below 65 percent by 2017.
In a recent interview with AP, Martin Adams, energy editor for the Economist Intelligence Unit based in Hong Kong, stated that the announcement may be misleading because even though the proportion will decrease, the total amount of coal that will be used in China will continue to increase.
The Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy (PRCEE), part of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is currently working on a set of industrial and scientific management practices aimed at reducing Chinese coal dependence, known as the co-control concept.
It appears air pollution measures announced by the government will conflict with the building of proposed coal-fired power plants at least in the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou regions. However, plans to build in other areas of high water stress are slated continue.
If most of the plants are built, increasing China’s use of coal, the government will have to seriously push the development and use of nuclear and gas power to achieve the goal of reducing coal’s portion of total energy use to below 65 percent by 2017. Even if China is able to meet this goal, total use of coal may continue to increase instead of decrease in the next four years.
Further complicating the issue, in 2010 the Chinese government introduced the “Three Red Lines” policy, aimed at establishing limits and goals on water quality, efficiency, and usage.
As part of this first line of this policy, China intends to limit the country’s total water consumption to 700 billion cubic meters of water per year. According to the Brookings Institution, this accounts for around 75 percent of the country’s freshwater resources. Second, China intends to raise irrigation efficiency (currently less than 50 percent) to 60 percent within the next 17 years. Third, the policy aims at maintaining water quality for sustainable development.
No matter how well intentioned the ideals of reducing water use and improving water quality, they clash with the plans for building new coal power plants and developing the country’s coal industry to boost the economy.
Experts in the region including analysts Tianyi Luo, Betsy Otto, and Andrew Maddocks suggest China slow the development of its coal industry while at the same time implement water conservation and pollution-curbing policies.
“Getting this balance right will be difficult,” wrote Luo, Otto, and Maddocks in a recent article in The Guardian. “No single reform will allow China to expand coal production and meet its water use targets. These trade-offs between economics and natural resources will require careful attention for years to come.”
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