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Renewables Could Hold The Key To China’s Water Problems

A power sector transformation driven by renewables and improved plant cooling technology could help relieve China’s water demand issues.

A new brief published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and China Water Risk finds that scaling up renewable energy in China, and introducing improved plant cooling technologies for existing power plants, could go a long way to reducing water intensity by up to 42%.

“The global issues of water, energy and climate are completely interconnected,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. “The only effective, immediately available solution to meet the rising demand for energy while limiting environmental impacts, is to scale up renewable energy. China has recognised this and must continue its leadership in the global energy transition.”

According to a 2014 information brief (PDF) by the United Nations, China is home to 20% of the world’s population, but only has 7% of the world’s freshwater supplies. In response to increasing water scarcity issues, China introduced province-level water use quotas (PDF) for 2015, 2020, and 2030. Add to that the fact that China’s water tables have dropped approximately one meter per year in the north of the country — the part of the country where nearly half of the people live, and home to more than half of the country’s thermal power generation, four-fifths of coal production and reserves, and nearly half of China’s sown cropland — and China is quickly finding itself in dire straits.

The authors of the IRENA report believe that renewable energy and improved plant cooling technologies could go a long way to alleviating some of this stress.


China is already one of the world’s leading installers and users of renewable energy, largely as an attempt to curb the country’s growing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the dual benefit of a renewable energy transformation is the inherent reduction in water use in the power sector, which currently accounts for 13.4% of water withdrawals. As seen in the above graph, however, a transition to renewable energy could have massive impacts.

According to the report, water withdrawal intensity would decrease by 41%, consumption intensity by 23%, and carbon intensity by 26% under the study’s reference case. Under the oft-quoted 2030 REmap case, these decreases would be relatively higher, at 42%, 30%, and 37% respectively.

The report is available to read from the International Renewable Energy Agency

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