In addition to polluting the air and warming the planet, India’s thermal power plants are consuming excessive amounts of water, in many cases beyond the permissible limits set by the environment ministry, according to information obtained through the Right to Information Act (RTI).
About 51% of 156 thermal plants across 12 states whose data could be obtained declared themselves compliant with water norms early this year, said the RTI response received by the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a research centre that analyses water and energy issues in India.
This excessive water consumption is causing water stress, we explain later, which affects households, farms and industries in the plant’s neighbourhood. It is also resulting in the shut-down of the thermal plants. Upto 40% of India’s thermal plants are located in areas facing acute water shortages, according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI), and are worsening the water crisis there. In this analysis, WRI has categorised ‘thermal power plants’ as those where steam is generated and water cooling is needed. This would include coal, oil, biomass and nuclear. In total, India has 399 such plants.
About 600 million Indians live with “high-to-extreme water stress”, where over 40% of annually available surface water is used every year, according to a 2018 study by government think-tank Niti Aayog, as IndiaSpend reported on June 25, 2018.
Upto 19% of the remaining plants declared themselves noncompliant, as per the RTI responses. The others either did not supply any data or offered insufficient information. Some plants were found shut. Also, 14 plants reported using sea water which exempts them from complying with water norms.
Source: Response to right to information requests, received by the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra
As of August 30, 2019, there were 269 thermal power plants in India, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Taken together, these plants consume 87.8% of the total amount of water consumed by the industrial sector, according to a study conducted by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). To put this in perspective, such amounts of water could fulfil the water needs of four cities for two days.
Renewable energy units cause far less water stress: Solar plants, for example, consume only a fraction of the water used by thermal plants, as we explain later, and wind energy does not need any water at all.
The detailed RTI response and its analysis have been documented in a report released by Manthan on July 1, 2019. Manthan had sought but did not receive information from West Bengal, Karnataka and Rajasthan.
Two-way problem of water stress and power shortages
Thermal power plants in India use water for cooling purposes and the disposal of fly ash, a byproduct in combustion processes.
“The usage of conventional technologies like burning coal to generate power requires large quantities of water,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. “This is the first problem. Secondly, we do this [the production of thermal power] inefficiently.”
This excessive water use creates two interlinked problems: Thermal power plants affect water security and are, in turn, affected by the non-availability of water, said Shresth Tayal, a fellow with TERI. “The energy security of the country cannot be achieved without water security,” he said.
Between 2013-17, 61 coal plants were shut down because of water shortages, resulting in a loss of 17,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity, according to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) that conducts research and analysis on financial and economic issues related to energy and the environment. “National Thermal Power Corporation’s Super Thermal Power Plant in Farakka, West Bengal and Rihand Super Thermal Power Project in Uttar Pradesh, Parali Thermal Power Plant in Maharashtra, Raichur Thermal Power Plant in Karnataka and Ennore Thermal Power Station in Tamil Nadu are all located in water-stressed areas and have been shut-down because of water storages,” said Deepak Krishnan, manager with the energy programme at the WRI, India.
Water consumption limits raised
Until December 2015, there were no norms to monitor water usage of thermal power plants. Then, on December 7, 2015, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued a notification which declared that old plants could use 3.5 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour and those installed after January 1, 2017 could use 2.5 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour.
In October 2017, the government eased the water consumption norms for even plants that started operations on or after January 1, 2017--they are now allowed to consume up to 20% more water than permitted earlier. Passed as amendments to the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, the new rules allow plants to use up to 3 cubic metres per megawatt-hour. This additional amount is enough to irrigate 700 hectares of land a year.
The average consumptive water requirement of coal-based plants with cooling towers is about 5-7 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour, according to the NITI Aayog. “In terms of installed capacity and water consumed per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, coal plants are the biggest consumers of water among thermal plants,” Dharmadhikary explained.
“There are technologies like dry cooling systems that have been employed in countries like South Africa and Australia that can be used to improve water efficiency,” Tayal said. “Plants that use this technology use as less as 0.5 to 1 cubic metres of water per unit of electricity generated. But the point is, dry cooling reduces the efficiency of the plant in terms of electricity production. So, we have to strike a balance between electricity and water efficiency.”
Affect on local communities
Efficient alternatives have become important also because thermal power plants put other water consumers--households, farming communities and other industries located in the area--at risk. There have been at least four cases where local communities were or still are in danger of losing sufficient access to water for household use or farming because of the water strain imposed by local thermal power plants or proposed thermal power plant projects in the area, as per latest data gathered by Land Conflict Watch since 2017. There are also four other cases where concerns were reported of water contamination by thermal power plants.
|Conflicts Over Water Scarcity-Related Issues|
|Conflict||Location||Description||Area affected||People affected|
|People Allege Bajaj Power Plant Did Not Fulfill Promises After Taking the Land||Burogaon, Uttar Pradesh||The project came under the radar of National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2015, when a petition was filed against the plant for unlawfully using the water from the dam on which thousands of farmers depend for irrigation. NGT ordered an inquiry into the matter.||1,600 acre||4,000 people|
|Thermal Power Plant in Paras||Maharashtra||Construction of a 250-megawatt coal power plant by Mahagenco has witnessed strong resistance from the residents of Paras village in Akola district of Maharashtra. People question the need for a new power plant. Also, the plant will use a huge quantum of the water that farmers need for irrigation, they say.||110 acre||89 households|
|Sahara power plant||Titilagarh, Odisha||The company has urged the state to expedite final water allocation for the power plant. Sahara has received assurance letter for supply of 53 cusecs from Tel river. Even though the proposed thermal power plant is yet to come up, people have started raising their voice against it by holding rallies and demonstrations. As this region is close to a river, people produce a lot of paddy, mung, horse gram and crops, besides vegetables.||812.25 acre||10,000 people|
|Welspun Thermal Power Plant in Katni||Bujbuja village, Madhya Pradesh||Welspun Energy Madhya Pradesh Limited has proposed to set up 1,980-megawatt thermal power plants at Bujbuja in Barhi tehsil of Katni district. About 60 MCM water will be drawn for the purpose from the confluence of Son and Mahanadi rivers. About 350 farmers will lose their fertile land once the company acquires it. They threaten to immolate themselves if they are removed from the land. Every day they sit on funeral pyres with kerosene and matchsticks within arms reach.||1,400 acre||350 people|
Source: Land Conflict Watch
|Conflicts Over Water Contamination Concerns|
|Conflict||Location||Description||Area affected||People affected|
|Villagers appeal in US Supreme Court against Mundra Power Plant||Mundra, Gujarat||The complaint raised issues related to the projects social and environmental impact on fishing communities, decline of water quality and fish populations, blocked access to fishing and drying sites, forced displacement of fishermen, community health impacts due to air emissions, and devastation of natural habitats, particularly mangroves.||1,242 ha||10,000 people|
|OPGC Faces Conflict Over Land for Expansion of Thermal Plant||Tilia, Odisha||The expansion will cause serious health issues to people as the OPGC plans to set up its ash pond in the region. "The ash pond will lead to public health hazard by polluting the air and water of the river Mahanadi, Odisha's biggest river system, and people in the area will have to bear the brunt of it," the Sarpanch of Tilia GP, Thana Sundar Sahu, told the Land Conflict Watch||357 acre||1,300 people|
|Fisherfolk Struggle to Protect Ennore Creek||Ennore, Tamil Nadu||Fisherfolk and residents in and around Ennore in Chennai have been protesting against pollution of the Ennore creek and encroachment of land by various Industries and the government.||2,000 acre||10,000 people|
|KSK Mahanadi Power Company Ltd.||Nariyara, Chhattisgarh||The KSK Mahanadi Power Project is located in Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. Although Janjgir-Champa is the least forested area of Chhattisgarh, lacks coal, and has widespread agriculture, it has been identified for construction of at least 34 power plants. As a result, the entire district faces issues of land acquisition and ecology due to the disposal of various industrial effluents in the land, air and water.||830 ha||1,842 households|
Source: Land Conflict Watch
The rate at which thermal power plants are gulping water will only increase in the coming years, according to this WRI paper. Thermal plants and other water consumers like farms, households and other industries located in the same watershed will end up competing for the water, it predicted.
Lack of transparency, accountability
Till date, compliances--or lack thereof--with water consumption regulations are self-reported by individual power plants.
“There is no real monitoring,” Dharmadhikary said. “The SPCBs [State Pollution Control Boards] are only receiving the data filed by the power plants.” The responsibility to monitor water consumption norms also rests on the MoEFCC in the case of plants it clears, he added. “The conditions based on which the clearance was granted should be monitored by the regional offices of the ministry,” he said.
Self-disclosures could also be made more robust to include baseline information like water consumed in the previous year. This information can be used to make comparisons with other data offered by verifiable evidence (water bills, for example) to support and substantiate the disclosures, WRI suggested.
A more wholesome solution, though, is to switch to renewable sources of energy, as we mentioned earlier.
Solar is a water-saving alternative. Consider this: a 1-megawatt (MW) thermal plant operating at full capacity for a year would produce 8,760 MW per hour of electricity while consuming 22,688 cubic metres of water [assumption or 2.59 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour], explained Krishnan. But five solar plants of 1 MW capacity each, operating at 20% capacity utilisation factor, would consume 876 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour to produce 8,760 MW per hour of electricity.
“Compared to cooling technology advancement or plant efficiency enhancement, transitioning to more solar photovoltaic [technology to convert sunlight into electricity by using semiconductors] and wind generation is the only pathway at scale that can cut back both water withdrawal and consumption while sustaining growth in power generation,” a WRI report stated last year.
We emailed and telephoned the MoEFCC and the Central Pollution Control Board four times over the last 10 days for comments on the RTI response and the kind of actions, if any, being taken to ensure that water consumption norms are being met. This story will be updated if and when their responses are received.
(Pardikar is a freelance journalist from Bengaluru.)
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