Renewable energy and cooling technologies key to reduce water use in India’s power sector

A new policy brief co-authored by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) finds that increasing the share of renewables, in particular solar PV and wind, in India’s power mix, and implementing changes in cooling technologies mandated for thermal power plants would not only lower carbon emissions intensity, but also substantially reduce water withdrawal and consumption intensity of power generation.

The brief, Water Use in India’s Power Generation – Impact of Renewables and Improved Cooling Technologies to 2030, finds that depending on the future energy pathways (IRENA’s REmap 2030 and the Central Electricity Authority of India), a power sector (excluding hydroelectricity) transformation driven by solar PV and wind, coupled with improved cooling technologies in thermal and other renewable power plants, could yield as much as an 84% decrease in water withdrawal intensity by 2030, lower annual water consumption intensity by 25% and reduce carbon emissions intensity by 43%, compared to 2014 levels. It builds off of the findings of Parched Power: Water Demands, Risks, and Opportunities for India’s Power Sector, launched by WRI.

More than four-fifths of India’s electricity is generated from coal, gas and nuclear power plants which rely significantly on freshwater for cooling purposes. Moreover, the power sector’s share in national water consumption is projected to grow from 1.4 to 9% between 2025 and 2050, placing further stress on water resources. Renewable energy, with the added potential to reduce both water demand and carbon emissions, must hence be at the core of India’s energy future.

Key findings

The power sector contributes to and is affected by water stress. Rapid growth in freshwater-intensive thermal power generation can contribute to water stress in the areas where plants are located. Power generation is expected to account for nearly 9% of national water consumption by 2050 (in a businessas-usual scenario) – growing from 1.4% in 2025 (Central Water Commission, 2015) and this figure is likely to vary quite significantly from region to region. There is a mismatch between water demand and supply when usable surface water capacity and replenishable groundwater levels are considered. Water stress is particularly acute in naturally arid regions and areas where water is also needed for other uses such as irrigation. Confronted with growing risks to water and energy security, the power sector needs long-term approaches to reduce its dependence on freshwater while also meeting other environmental objectives such as reducing atmospheric, water and soil pollution.

The combination of improved power plant cooling technologies and»renewable energy technologies, especially solar PV and wind, could lessen the intensity of freshwater use and carbon intensity of the power sector. In its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), India committed to increasing the share of non-fossil sources in its installed power capacity to 40% by 2030. India has a related target of 175 GW of renewables capacity by 2022, including 100 GW of solar PV and 60 GW of wind. As solar PV and wind power require significantly less water than conventional and other renewable sources during the operational phase, their substantial uptake could contribute to a reduction in freshwater use as well as carbon intensity of power generation. Simultaneously, phasing out once-through cooling technologies at existing power plants and restricting their installation at new thermal plants, through enforcement of the announced regulatory water use standards, will substantially reduce water withdrawal.

By 2030, the water withdrawal intensity of the electricity generation (excluding hydropower) could be reduced by up to 84%, consumption intensity by up to 25%, and CO2 intensity by up to 43% in comparison to the 2014 baseline. Under all scenarios analysed, the Indian power sector’s freshwater and CO2 intensity (excluding hydropower) would substantially fall compared to the 2014 baseline. Even as intensities reduce, changes to absolute water withdrawal and consumption in 2030 vary. The transition from once-through to recirculating cooling systems will drastically reduce withdrawal but will increase total water consumption in most scenarios. Coupled with continuing thermal and renewable capacity development, total water consumption in 2030 is estimated to increase by up to 4 billion m3. Measures discussed in this brief to reduce freshwater and carbon intensity complement demand-side measures, such as energy efficiency improvements, thus warranting an integrated approach to power sector planning.

The joint brief was launched at the World Future Energy Summit 2018 in Abu Dhabi

Source: IRENA