Renewable Energy Development Can Strengthen Energy and Water Security in India

By Clara Ma
The Indian government has set ambitious goals for the decarbonization of its energy sector in keeping with its pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement, with 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity planned for installation by the year 2022. At the same time, under the Jal Jeevan Mission, India has committed to providing clean tap water connections for all households by 2024. As India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and Ministry of Jal Shakti pursue interconnected goals, they must work together to maximize both energy and water security by prioritizing solar and wind energy development in India’s water-stressed regions.
India’s power sector has grown rapidly over the last two decades, with universal electrification achieved in 2018. However, despite gains in access and progress in decarbonization, the reliability of power supply remains erratic, and coal continues to meet half of India’s commercial primary energy needs. In addition to producing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, India’s thermal power plants use high volumes of freshwater for cooling and other purposes, often violating limits set by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
The International Renewable Energy Agency projects that under a business-as-usual scenario, India’s power sector will consume nine percent of the country’s total water consumption by 2050. Particularly in arid regions and areas where high volumes of water are used for irrigation, thermal power generation can both contribute to and be affected by local water stress. Nationwide, from 2013 to 2016, water shortages caused disruptions to consumers and thermal power plant outages for 14 of India’s largest utilities, resulting in $1.4 billion in revenue losses.
In some parts of the country, thermal generation is constrained even more severely by the limited availability of water for cooling. In March 2016, a West Bengal coal-fired power plant was forced to shut down due to low water levels in the canal bridging the plant and a nearby river, causing power outages in Farakka, the local township whose electricity is supplied by the power station. To make matters worse, the town, which is home to more than 1000 plant worker families, ran out of water for household consumption. Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, low water levels in the Thamirabarani River forced the indefinite shuttering of the 1050-megawatt Tuticorin Thermal Power Station in 2017.
According to a 2018 Niti Aayog Report, 600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress, while 200,000 people die annually from exposure to a water supply that is more than 70 percent contaminated. In India, thermal power plants generate an average 200 million metric tons of coal ash each year. Coal ash is a remnant of coal combustion that can contaminate groundwater with toxic pollutants like arsenic and lithium that are associated with cancer and neurological damage. Since coal ash is not considered a hazardous waste in India, there are no legal requirements for utilities to measure or disclose the impacts of chemical leaching on groundwater. Such constraints pose challenges to continued thermal generation and clean water access in water-stressed areas of India. Moreover, energy-water challenges will intensify as climate change causes more frequent droughts, decreasing the amount of water available for power generation and household consumption.
In contrast to thermoelectric generation technologies, renewable energy sources like wind power and solar photovoltaicrequire little to no water for operations. In 2012, the European Wind Energy Association estimated that wind energy in the European Union (EU) saved 387 billion liters of water, or the average annual water consumption of approximately three million EU households. Total life cycle water withdrawal and consumption for wind and solar power range from less than one percent to approximately seven percent of the total life cycle water withdrawal and consumption of coal-fired power plants without carbon capture, utilization, and storage, on a per megawatt-hour basis.
Renewable energy can also provide secure and sustainable energy along various segments of the water supply chain, decreasing the energy burden on existing infrastructure as demand for clean drinking water increases. For these reasons, switching to solar photovoltaic or wind energy has the potential to significantly reduce water withdrawal and consumption for electricity generation in India. Other benefits include circumventing limitations imposed by water availability on generation, strengthening both energy and water security.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Jal Jeevan Mission is to maintain high water quality and ensure the long-term sustainability of the water supply system in remote areas, the Ministry of Jal Shakti and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy must work together to prioritize solar photovoltaic and wind energy development in places where thermal plants are struggling and water stress is elevated, saving water as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while also meeting national renewable energy targets.
Clara Ma is an intern with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies.