Solar PV is the Solution as 40% of India’s Thermal Plants are Threatened by Water Scarcity

Water scarcity is an issue of increasing concern for India’s thermal power plants, according to a new report by World Resources Institute (WRI). Researchers found that about 40 percent of the thermal plants in India that rely on freshwater for cooling purposes are in water-stressed areas and more are expected to move into that category in coming years.

“Fourteen of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages between 2013-2016, costing the companies $1.4 billion,” according to the report entitled ‘Parched Power: Water Demands, Risks, and Opportunities for India’s Power Sector.’

The problem is only likely to worsen with time unless the country takes some solid measures to address it.

Currently, 83 percent of India’s total electricity comes from thermal power plants that rely on fuels like coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, and almost 90 percent of these plants use freshwater for cooling purposes, according to the report.


40% of India’s Thermal Power Plants Are in Highly Water-Stressed Areas

40% of India’s Thermal Power Plants Are in Highly Water-Stressed Areas

(Source: WRI)

“Seventy percent of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030 thanks to climate change and increased demands from other sectors. By 2030, 19 out of the 20 companies are likely to see an average increase in water use competition between 3 percent and 28 percent across their portfolio of power plants,” the report warned.

Plants in high water-stressed areas already have an approximately 21 percent lower utilization rate than their counterparts in low or medium water-stressed regions, according to WRI.

40% of India’s Thermal Power Plants Are in Highly Water-Stressed Areas

This, in turn, has financial implications. In 2016 alone, water shortages cost India about 14 terawatt-hours of potential thermal power generation, canceling out more than 20 percent of the growth in the country’s total electricity generation from 2015.

The report also offered potential ways to reduce the risks of water scarcity. It suggested cooling system upgrades, plant efficiency upgrades, and ultimately shifting toward water-free renewables like solar photovoltaics and wind to curb the risks that water scarcity poses to power generation.

According to the WRI’s findings, over 12.4 billion cubic meters of fresh water withdrawals could be reduced from India’s power sector needs if proposed cooling mandates were fully implemented and aggressive renewable targets completely achieved.

Shifting Toward Renewables:

The report suggests that the government should keep working toward meeting its ambitious renewable goals and prioritize solar PV and wind projects when possible to scale up power production while reducing the power sector’s exposure to water related risks.

“Generating power with solar PV and wind can achieve not only zero carbon emissions but also near-zero water consumption. At the national level, moving toward a power mix that has a higher share of PV and wind can reduce the power sector’s water intensity and exposure to risks. At the local level, these renewables could help improve the resilience of the local power system to extreme drought events and, at the same time, save freshwater for domestic and agricultural users,” said the report.

Installations in 2017 are trending in the right direction. According  to data compiled by Mercom India Research, the installation share of coal in India’s power mix declined significantly from 62 percent in 2016 to just 19 percent in 2017. Solar was the leading source of new power capacity additions in calendar year 2017 with installed capacity of approximately 9.5 GW accounting for 45 percent of total power capacity additions. Wind was the second most installed power source with 19.6 percent followed by coal at 18.9 percent.

Click here to download the full report

Image credit: NTPC