The power of rain

 By Jim McClelland

This summer has brought tragic news of floods sweeping across South Asia, killing over 1,200 people in parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal, plus directly affecting literally millions more, wreaking untold havoc upon infrastructure, property and society alike…

Strange as it may seem, however, the terrible weather events of 2017 actually represent something of an exception to the recent rule that has typically seen India gripped by drought and water scarcity. This opposing climate extreme predominated in 2016, with the country reporting about one quarter of its population, 330 million people, affected last April, coming off the back of two consecutive years of weak monsoons.
Water shortages are a world problem. As illustrated by Global Drought Map, the issue is currently affecting countries and regions as geographically diverse as Brazil, China, Kenya and Southern Europe, particularly Italy and Spain.
To make matters worse in India’s case, though, despite investment in renewable energy capacity, the power sector there is still heavily reliant on thermoelectric plants, which typically feature high demand for water for cooling. Prime times for water shortage also see high energy demand, which compounds the issue.

Advancing monsoon clouds and showers in Aralvaimozhy, India (PlaneMad, Wikimedia)

This double-whammy may mean droughts can shut off the power, exacerbating economic hardship — especially for those rural poor struggling in the agricultural sector — threatening loss of livelihood and even life.
There is, of course, a direct connection between water and energy in the form of hydroelectric generation. The Ministry of Power in India estimates hydropower potential there to be around 1,45,000 MW. Given that only about 26 percent of this is thought to have been exploited so far, market activity remains strong, with no fewer than eight new plants planned in just Jammu and Kashmir.
The relationship between water and energy security goes far beyond hydro alone. Rainfall is vital to many forms of power generation, as Tianyi Luo, Research Associate with the Global Water Program, World Resources Institute (WRI), explains:
“India’s electricity generation is highly dependent on fresh water, not just the hydropower plants, but also most of its thermal power sector, which includes fossil fuel and nuclear plants, as well as biomass and concentrated solar.”

Disruption is not a hypothetical situation. When it comes to quantifying the effects of drought on the power sector in India, there are already figures available via the Central Electricity Authority that record impacts in terms of both plant shutdown days and power loss in terawatt hours (TWh), adds Luo:
“According to the daily outage reports from CEA, between 2013 and 2016, Parli thermal power station was shut down entirely for 506 days purely due to water shortages, resulting in an estimated loss in potential electricity generation of 20.9 TWh.”

   India climatic disaster risk map (Saravask, Wikimedia)

In all, WRI analysis reveals 18 thermal power plants in India had shutdowns caused by water shortages during 2016. Impact duration ranged from days to months, but the total cost to the country has been calculated at roughly 14 TWh of thermal electricity generation — enough to power neighboring Sri Lanka for an entire year.
Going forward, even taking into account this year’s extreme events to the contrary, the forecast is for frequency and intensity of droughts to increase with effects of climate change, meaning water-scarcity impacts on power plant resilience will worsen, not ease.
When it comes to preventative action, there are some less-water-intensive technologies on the market that might help lighten the load for existing thermal power plants. These include ‘once through’ and wet-recirculating or closed-loop systems, plus dry-cooling installations that use air rather than water. Each has potential advantages in application, but also relative trade-offs in terms of negatives around such as ecosystem disruption, water consumption and fuel efficiency.
Ultimately, it is the push for renewable energy generation technologies with little or no water footprint, such as solar PV and wind, that will really change the game. Strong productivity of solar PV during the hot and dry season represents a key additional benefit.
India’s Solar Revolution therefore holds the key not only to the future of energy in the country, but in some ways water, too. With drought effectively only ever one weak monsoon away, the power shift cannot happen fast enough.

READ MORE: India’s solar revolution by Jim McClelland

about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.