Last year, all six units of the 1160 MW Parli thermal plant in Beed, Maharashtra, were shut down because of acute water shortage. A recent report indicates that nearly two-thirds of the country´s power plants are located in water-scarce or water stressed areas. What´s even more worrying, around 80 per cent of new power capacities are coming up in areas that are water-stressed.
Is the Indian power industry headed for a water crisis? All the indicators seem to be pointing towards this scenario. India is also in a neighbourhood that is severely water-stressed. Asia´s current per capita energy consumption is lower than the global average, but is expected to go up sharply in the coming decades. But the continent, which supports around 4 billion people (or 60 per cent of the world´s population) has access only to 30 per cent of the world´s fresh water. Last month, the UN released a report which highlights the precarious situation we are in. Despite the moves towards increasing the share that renewable energy plays in total power production, coal is expected to remain the main source of energy in Asia. Thermal power plants which survive on coal are causing water quality degradation because of mining and these installations also need large quantities of water for cooling towers. Regional behemoth China is going ahead with its aggressive power sector expansion plans. Greenpeace says that Beijing plans to set up 16 mega coal-based plans by 2015, which would consume 10 billion cubic metres of water annually, equivalent to one-sixths of the Yellow River´s annual flow.
The World Bank, while declaring that the world´s energy and water are inextricably linked, has declared that water scarcity can threaten the long-term viability of energy products and hinder development.
What can be done? First, the water footprint of the energy industry should be thoroughly analysed. Units consuming more than an accepted threshold of water consumption should be charged at steadily increasing slab rates. Second, the government should lay down norms for effective water metering. Water meters are non-existent or defective in a number of areas in the hinterland, in parts where major plants are coming up. If water usage is not closely monitored, there is no incentive for plant operators to conserve water. Third, the government should move towards intelligent rationing of subsidised power being supplied to rural consumers, so that farmers do not divert electricity to water pumps, which depletes groundwater levels and increases power consumption. Fourth, the huge inefficiencies that exist in our water distribution system should be eliminated, with help from global leaders in this field (Saudi Arabia saved around $160 million last year from a water pipeline audit). Fifth, every power plant above a certain capacity (this cut-off can be determined after due deliberations with the industry) should have a captive effluent and wastewater treatment plant. All this, of course, will be possible only after the elections.
Let me turn my thoughts to the priorities for the new government. The BJP seems to hold more promise for the energy sector. Its manifesto promises a renewed focus on solar energy generation, a national gas grid, micro hydro-projects and a region-wise renewable energy policy. And the BJP also has an energy cell in place, whose convenor has promised a relook at the gas pricing issue and has promised to replicate the Gujarat model of energy development across the country.
As this publication has pointed out, turning around Coal India, introduction of a coal auction system, and a relook at the coal block allocation process are the other items that should be on the agenda of the new Power Minister. But the dust from the hustings has to settle down first.
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