India: Using wastewater in the coal power plants is just not practical

Although the Government in India has introduced a plan to lower the nation’s coal power plants’ heavy reliance on freshwater, it is impractical and economically unworkable. Photo credit: The Third Pole

Although still in its infancy, the Indian Government’s grandiose plan to lower the nation’s dependence on freshwater for their coal-fired power plants has already hit more than a few snags. According to a report recently published by Greenpeace India, titled Pipe Dreams, the policy, introduced in 2016, for several plants to utilise treated sewage water, is simply impractical and economically unworkable.

After a severe drought last year forced a number of coal plants to close their doors, and causing the loss of almost 11 billion units (kWH) of power, alongside an approximate loss of US$560 million in revenue, India’s energy ministry made it imperative for all thermal power plants within a 50-kilometre-radius of a wastewater treatment plant to use the treated water for operations.

However, the Greenpeace report pointed out that only around eight per cent of all coal plants were able to completely meet their water needs in that way. Another five per cent were able to settle their water needs partially, but a mind-whopping 87 per cent of plants were unable to follow the policy as they simply lacked access to treated wastewater. Additionally, the report went on to state that thermal power plants are able to use less than 11 per cent of treated water.

India is heavily reliant on orthodox sources of energy, and thermal power plants are behind a majority proportion of electricity produced in the nation, and water shortages will negatively affect power output, according to The Third Pole. But despite this, India is aiming to generate up to 56.5 per cent of electricity through non-fossil fuel means in a decade, 2027.

Coal-fired power plants are freshwater guzzlers, unfortunately, using water to move the turbines and for cooling, which usually takes up around 80 per cent of total water consumed. Additionally, some 3.5 litres of water is needed to generate one unit of energy, and across the nation, the power plants go through approximate 4.6 billion cbm of freshwater annually – an amount enough to meet the needs of some 250 million people.

But using treated wastewater is a way for India’s coal industry to bring down its use of freshwater, thereby conserving an increasingly precious resource. After all, treated wastewater is not untreated; neither does it contain saline, which can corrode the turbines or fuel biological growths that have the potential to hinder the machinery through congestion.

Unfortunately, water treatment facilities tend to be built in urban areas, and far from power plants.

“To claim that the use of sewage would solve coal power’s water problem would be like claiming a drop of water will save a dying man of thirst,” Jai Krishna, a researcher for Greenpeace and author of the report, said to The Third Pole during an interview.

Additionally, Pipe Dreams goes on to allege that the billions required to invest in treatment facility infrastructure would see water costs surge, a burden that consumers would have to shoulder.

On top of that, Greenpeace continued, taking the treated water out of the local ecosystem and giving them to coal power plants to meet their needs would negatively impact the water flows downstream and will not settle the water conflict between farmers, urban communities, and thermal power plants.

And Pipe Dreams has concluded that shifting away from freshwater to treated wastewater will not scale down the impact India’s coal power plants has on the nation’s water scarcity issues.

“A more effective solution to the water conflict would be to phase out old, inefficient power plants, which tend to consume the most water and emit the most pollutants, while also halting permits for new coal power plants,” Krishna finished.


Sources: Greenpeace India, The Third Pole