China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:


China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

2 thoughts on “China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

  1. Nice work Jason! Hailing from the same place you do and ironically, about 30 miles south of your current home, I am thrilled to see you putting real science back into the debate and your views are well balanced. I have been involved with energy issues since the late 80's and have been published on a few occasions. My work began in our home state and included writing for a top financial/economic news concern regarding energy and climate. One of the more disturbing issues for me is the fraud not only in the science that has been discovered, improper financial methodology used in the deployment of renewable technologies and other more serious matters.

    That said, China and other geopolitical hot spots has been a focal point in some of my writing and the rainfall stats you have above are an eye opener. I agree that water needs to be more carefully utilized and have a question for you. A lot of gas (and other) plants I have seen use precipitators and wonder if you have any data regarding what the losses/recovery rates are for plants utilizing that technology?

    Anyhow, I might pop in from time to time with a comment or question (constructively) and hope you don't mind. Speaking of water, I really miss fishing in the Moose River ;).

    Keep up the great work!


  2. China opens 1st environmental court but foreign corporations more exposed to whopping claims

    A. Introduction

    China opened its first Environmental Court this week in Fujian Province to streamline environmental litigation and deal with a growing number of cases of complex environmental claims, including a number of so-called green-collar crimes (environmental claims that are criminally prosecuted).

    It’s a great idea that should be emulated in Canada where environmental claims get bogged down by endless process and are affected at times by inconsistent decisions rendered that involve participants who in some cases lack subject matter legal expertise, both within the bar and at the bench. As First Nations, especially in Quebec and British Columbia, gear up for climate change litigation in Canada, the need for an environmental court will become more salient to address the international complexity of the issues. Private energy companies and government bodies will be the main targets of such litigation – it makes legal and economic sense therefore, to establish specialized courts to efficiently and effectively deal with environmental claims for legal and business certainty.

    The Fujian Province Environmental Court has 12 appointed consultants who are specialists in environmental law, environmental sciences and environmental crimes. Their role is to assist the Court in determining facts, issues, interpreting evidence and acting as quasi-expert witnesses.

    Environmental crime specialists are financial crime specialists who investigate and quantify economic damages associated with environmental violations. Traditionally, they usually quantify potential legal costs for projects involving environmental risks on behalf of banks and other lenders. The nexus between economic crimes and financial crime is novel in Canada, although certainly not elsewhere. For example, in Dubai, environmental crimes are predicate offenses to money laundering offenses pursuant to its national anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing legislation. The connection is relevant because environmental crimes are a subset of financial crimes, the proceeds of which are illicit and subject to criminal prosecution.

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