The power sector has a large impact on the amount of water consumed. Certain processes in coal power plants require large amounts of water. In India, most of these power plants are installed in coastal areas. These plants draw ocean water, desalinate it and bring it to the required quality of water for the turbines and then re-use it. The wastewater that exits the plant is supposed to be taken far into the ocean, (around 2km from the edge and very deep), so that the water can mix in easily over a period of time. "Unless we manage the exit water very carefully, it can result in extensive pollution and have a detrimental impact on marine life", says Sharma.
When a large coal power plant or a nuclear power plant is set up, society commits to providing it a large amount of water round the clock, year after year. This lessens the availability of natural water resources to those who are dependent on it. "We cannot forget that if human beings start using large quantities of water, the other species of the animal kingdom that are dependent on water will be deprived of it. This is an issue for both nuclear and coal power plants", says Sharma.
Current scenario in the Power sector
About 700,000 MW of new power project proposals are in various stages of application at the Ministry of Environment. Prayas, an organization working on initiatives in Energy, has calculated that the total amount of additional water required for these 700,000MW can provide fresh water for around 15% of the population and can meet 9-10% of agricultural requirements. “But India is already water stressed, so the question here is whether we should continue building these large power plants, or should we diligently look for alternatives available for us to meet these requirements”, says Sharma.
“We need to first understand whether the so called demand for electricity in the past, present and future, can be considered legitimate. Some of them are luxurious demands (wants, not needs). The needs for a common man are basically for lighting or probably charging his cell phone, or for a mixer/ grinder in the kitchen. But what about air conditioned homes? Night time sports? And 24 hour shopping malls?”, he says.
According to Sharma, India’s efficiency is one of the worst in the power sector with respect to international practices. His calculations supported by the Power Ministry and Planning Commission show that if India’s efficiency was maintained at the power sector’s international best practice level, it can give virtually about 35-40% more power within the existing infrastructure.
“What it means is that there is absolutely no shortage of power at the moment. By taking the efficiency to the international best practice level, you will indirectly reduce the additional demand for electricity and in turn reduce the number of power plants required“.
What are the alternatives currently available?
Sunlight is one of the best sources of renewable energy available. If sunlight is tapped in the most effective way, it will not require any water. "The water footprint of technologies such as biomass and wind energy is minimal. And India being a tropical country, there is a huge potential".
What is the solution?
"What is lacking in our country is that, although youngsters are concerned about the condition and treatment of our natural resources, they do not have the right information on how we can manage our requirement of energy without having an impact on these natural resources. We urgently need to transform our thinking, and a paradigm shift among policy makers is key".
According to him, efficiency improvement, energy conservation and demand side management are the three major plans that we require in the future.
“More and more societal sections should be involved in such movements and start talking to the authorities, government officials, and policy makers in order to engage them in discussion. They must come out with options that have little impact on society, natural resources and energy footprint. People like me are concerned that this process is taking too much time. The water bodies are getting polluted, we are running out of water resources, and there is limited water available", he says.
Shankar Sharma has three decades of professional experience in the electricity industry in the areas of generation, transmission and distribution. He has worked with the Central Electricity Authority, Ministry of Power, Govt of India, and Electricity Corporations of New Zealand and Australia. He is currently a consultant to the Electricity Industry in India.
This post is based on an interview with Sharma at Loyola College, Chennai in December 2013.