Renewables Could Hold The Key To China’s Water Problems

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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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Joshua S Hill

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8 thoughts on “Renewables Could Hold The Key To China’s Water Problems

  • Indeed. See the 2014 US DOE report on the Water-Energy Nexus for more on how this works in the U.S. Clean energy is a big deal for water too!

  • Cooling towers for power plants take a LOT of water.
    It would be interesting to see how wind and solar have saved water in California.

  • A No brainer f true but China is not exactly stalling on RE development as of now. The article contains some very positive stats if implemented in full but the harsh reality of the stats if not implemented is catastrophe at its highest level. China’s Geo position is such that neighboring countries hold as much freshwater sources as the and in India’s case the need to avoid diversion of those resources is equal for the same reasons. A tiff between those 2 over water would not see a pleasant outcome. It strikes me the article misses the bleeding obvious. Renewable Energy fueled desalination plants along the coast are a must, the resulting freshwater pumped into the multiple diversion coals under construction. China’s problem stems from mass urbanization as well as serial abuse of land with industrialization. Their only hope is desalination, there will be NO new sources of freshwater only savings of existing.

    • Desalination doesn’t really pay for itself in China, even with their high population density. Other methods such as switching to renewables, reducing water pollution, and improving water efficiency tend to have a better return per dollar. But their could be special cases such as Beijing where a dry climate, declining water tables, a large population, and a high average income for China makes water more valuable.

      It is also kind of surprising how small Beijing’s desalination capacity will be. 21.5 million people will soon have desalination capacity comparable to what Adelaide already has for 1.6 million. Mind you, Adelaide’s desalination plant makes no economic sense while Beijing’s might.

      • Your first statement sums it up. If $$$s count a lot of troubles are ahead. Drought doesn’t select where it impacts. A combination of all of the above will be required including desalination regardless of cost. The outcome other wise will have dire regional consequences.

        • Climate change has the potential to kill millions. Tens of millions or more depending on how bad things get. But China is now in a much better position than it was as it is now rich enough to bid food away from poorer countries.

  • “China’s water tables have dropped approximately one meter per year in the north of the country”
    That is an amazing and for China a very scary line.

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