Solar a Solution for India’s Water Woes

Coal still accounts for majority of India’s total installed power capacity


India is developing rapidly and with this growth comes an increasing demand for energy. In today’s economy, reliable access to electricity is a key factor for propelling growth. Currently, the energy mix is skewed towards coal, which is not only a major source of air pollution but it also consumes large amounts of water – a particularly precious resource in India.

Although India is well-endowed with strong river systems, water is a scarce resource in a country of 1.3 billion people. As both electricity and water demand are increasing, traditional sources of energy have become a liability not just because of pollution but also due to heavy water consumption. Coal requires large quantities of precious water compared to solar and wind. The 2012 report “Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity” estimated that every megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity generated by coal withdraws approximately 16,052 gallons from the environment and consumes approximately 692 gallons of water. Conversely, a National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) official commented that a typical solar project utilizes only 1 kilo liter of water per MW on a daily basis.

Another NTPC official commented, “Take for instance a 1,000 MW coal-powered thermal project. It will require between 6,500 to 8,000 kilo liters of water per day. It comes down to almost 6.5-8 kl/MW/day. This is almost eight times the water required for solar projects.”

According to a recently released report by NITI Aayog, India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, and millions of lives are at risk. Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 0.2 million people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. And the crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying a severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual ~6 percent loss in the country’s GDP. Another NITI Aayog report on water states that 60 Indian cities could face severe water shortages within two years and that it is irresponsible to keep building new coal plants that not only contribute to massive air pollution but are also depleting these valuable water resources.

At the end of June 2018, Mercom reported that the country’s total installed power generation capacity was 347,617 MW, of which coal accounted for 56.66 percent of India’s total installed power capacity. Attaining a national energy mix wherein solar accounts for half of the generation capacity could save billions of liters of water per day.

“The government needs to include water in the equation along with CO2 reductions when formulating solar goals and establishing tariffs. A goal to install 100 GW by 2022 is good but is just a start. Policy makers need to think about solar as a significant percentage of the total energy generation mix when they are setting goals, to actually make a dent environmentally, and in terms of preserving water,” said Raj Prabhu, CEO of Mercom Capital Group.

In a country like India with ample sunshine, solar is a responsible way forward to power economic growth with minimal environmental impact and water usage.

Image credit: Vishwjeet