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Environmental Management

, Volume 57, Issue 6, pp 1188–1203 | Cite as

Managing Scarce Water Resources in China’s Coal Power Industry

  • Chao Zhang
  • Lijin Zhong
  • Xiaotian Fu
  • Zhongnan Zhao
Article

Abstract

Coal power generation capacity is expanding rapidly in the arid northwest regions in China. Its impact on water resources is attracting growing concerns from policy-makers, researchers, as well as mass media. This paper briefly describes the situation of electricity-water conflict in China and provides a comprehensive review on a variety of water resources management policies in China’s coal power industry. These policies range from mandatory regulations to incentive-based instruments, covering water withdrawal standards, technological requirements on water saving, unconventional water resources utilization (such as reclaimed municipal wastewater, seawater, and mine water), water resources fee, and water permit transfer. Implementing these policies jointly is of crucial importance for alleviating the water stress from the expanding coal power industry in China.

Keywords

Electricity-water nexus Coal power industry Water resource management Unconventional water resources Water resource fee Water permit transfer 

Introduction

Thermal power generation is responsible for roughly 8 % of the national total water withdrawals in China, i.e., 50 billion m3 in 2013 (MWR 2014a). Coal power generation was responsible for nearly all these water withdrawals, as it contributed 92 % of China’s total thermal power generation (CEC 2014). Although water conservation is not a new topic in the coal power industry (Li et al. 2008), China’s recent ambitious plan to develop a dozen of large coal power industrial clusters, which are composed of huge coalmines and numerous large-sized coal power plants, in its water-scarce northwest regions has raised unprecedented concerns about the increasing water stress associated with the energy sector (Song et al. 2012). Headline-grabbing titles with provocative implications are indicative of deep worries about the water shortage facing China’s coal power industry and frequently appear in international mass media (Schneider 2011; Green Peace 2012; Hilton 2013; WRI 2013). Some of these reports even warned that China’s coal power industry was running out of water (Hilton 2013; WRI 2013). Researchers have begun to investigate the linkages between energy production and water demand in China at system level (Zhang and Anadon 2013; Zhang et al. 2014, 2016) and to explore future trends of water withdrawal and/or consumption by China’s power sector (Yu et al. 2011; Feng et al. 2014; Yuan et al. 2014; Cai et al. 2014).

For China’s power sector as a whole, promoting renewable energy sources including wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power that do not require significant amounts of water could save considerable amounts of water (Li et al. 2012; Ma et al. 2013; Feng et al. 2014). Numerous studies have shown promise in the transition toward renewable and low-carbon power technologies (CEACER 2009; CAE 2011; Zhou et al. 2013; BNEF 2013) that also conserve water in the long term in China. In contrast, improving the water use efficiency in the coal power industry is still of prime importance for alleviating energy-related water stress both now and in the future because coal is likely to play a dominate role in the fuel mix of China’s power sector for quite a long time. In 2013, coal power generation contributed 74.1 % of China’s total electricity output, while hydropower, nuclear power, and wind power accounted for 16.6, 2.1 and 2.6 %, respectively (CEC 2014). A long-term strategic study on the power sector development conducted by the Chinese Academy of Engineering predicted that coal power capacity will probably increase by 80 % from 2012 to 2050, and will still contribute more than half of China’s electricity output up to 2050 (CAE 2011). Furthermore, this enormous water user is accelerating its pace into China’s arid northwest regions, including Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces, where large amounts of coal resources are located.

Some previous studies have discussed the general policies and institutional framework of water resource management in China (Jiang 2009; Cheng et al. 2009; Liu and Speed 2009; Cheng and Hu 2012), with a focus on the agricultural sector (Yang et al. 2003; Huang et al. 2009, 2010). However, the application of alternative policy instruments for water resource management in the coal power industry has not yet been comprehensively investigated. The purpose of this paper is to summarize water resource management policies and their implementation in China’s coal power industry and to show how policy interventions could relieve the water stress caused by the rapid expansion of the coal power industry. “The Emerging Electricity-Water Conflict in China” section briefly introduces the background information on the construction of large coal power industrial clusters in northwest China and the electricity-water conflict arises. “Technology Policies for Improving Water Efficiency” section to “Water Permits Transfer” section introduce four categories of water resource management policies: (1) technology policies for improving water efficiency, (2) unconventional water resource utilization policies, (3) water resource fee, and (4) water permit transfer. A list of water resource management policies and regulations for China’s coal power industry ordered by issue date is also presented with a brief introduction in the Appendix in Supplementary Material. Some concluding remarks are made in “Discussion and Conclusions” section.

The Emerging Electricity-Water Conflict in China

China’s coal power industry has been shifting to the northwest regions with an unprecedented pace since early 2000s, when the central government started to promote the “Great Western Development” strategy. As shown in Fig. 1, the total installed capacities of coal power plants in six northwest provinces, i.e., Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang, increased from 35.32 GW in 2000 to 201.35 GW in 2013, accounting for 14.9 and 23.1 % of China’s total coal power capacity, respectively. They also contributed 23.7 % of China’s total coal-fired electricity output in 2013, but only 15.6 % in 2000 (CEC 2014).
Fig. 1

Trends of installed capacities of coal power plants and their power generation in six northwest provinces in China (CEC 2014)

The changing spatial distribution of the coal power industry is a consequence of the geographic mismatch between the major coal reserves in northwest China and the electricity demand centers in the east and coastal areas. Early in the 1990s, China initialized the “West to East Electricity Transmission” project as a national energy strategy and a part of the Western Development Plan to promote economic development in inland regions. Current policies expect northwest China to become a “granary of electricity.” In China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for energy development (State Council 2013b), accelerating the construction of huge coalmines and pithead power plant clusters in Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, and Xinjiang is listed as a key energy strategy. The 12th Five-Year Plan for coal industry development, formulated by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC 2012), proposed a more detailed plan for constructing 14 national-level large coal production bases in China. The China Electricity Council also proposed an integrated development plan of coal mining and electricity generation involving 16 large coal power industrial clusters, 13 of which are located in the six northwest provinces (CEC 2012). According to this plan, approximately 570 GW new coal power capacity will be constructed from 2011 to 2020. The six provinces listed in Fig. 1 are expected to contribute 37 % of China’s total coal power capacity in 2020. To enable large-scale inter-regional electricity transmission from the west to the east, dozens of advanced long-distance and high-capacity ultra-high voltage electricity transmission projects are under construction or being proposed (Liu 2013; Wu et al. 2014).

Another driving force is the serious air pollution in the east. The frequent heavy haze in China’s coastal urban clusters in recent years (Wang et al. 2013; Liang 2014) has compelled policy makers to draft more stringent pollution control policies. The recent National Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control (State Council 2013a) limits the planning and construction of new coal power plants in city agglomerations such as the Great Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta to reduce emission sources. These restrictions will increase the amount of imported electricity in the east and further stimulate the construction of inland energy bases.

Developing coal power industry in the northwest regions is essential for China’s energy self-sufficiency and economic growth. Unfortunately, water shortage poses a serious challenge to these plans. As shown in Fig. 2, the north and northwest regions in China are under severe water stress, where water withdrawals in many catchments exceed 80 % of available flow. Six major coal power producing provinces, i.e., Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, and Xinjiang, account for only 8 % of China’s total renewable freshwater resources, while they occupy 39 % of China’s territorial area (Zhang and Anadon 2014). If we look into more details of water resource distribution in these provinces, water scarcity appears to be more severe in places where large coal power industrial clusters are under construction than the provincial average level. As shown in Table 1, for example, the provincial average annual per capita water resource in Shaanxi is 1149 m3, but is only 160 m3 in Binchang coal power industrial cluster.
Fig. 2

Baseline water stress at catchment level and locations of coal power industrial clusters under construction in China. Notes Baseline water stress means total annual water withdrawals expressed as a percent of the total annual available flow at catchment level. Data of baseline water stress are extracted from the Aqueduct Global Maps published by World Resources Institute (Gassert et al. 2013). Black lines in the figure show provincial boundaries

Table 1

Water resource indicators at provincial and prefecture city level where large coal power industrial clusters are located

Province

Prefecture city

Name of coal power industrial cluster

Long-term yearly average local water resources (billion m3)

Annual per capita water resources (m3)

Water resources modulusa (104 m3/km2)

Total water withdrawal in 2012 (billion m3)

National Total

2814.2

2083

29.14

 

Shanxib

12.5

350

8.17

7.51

Inner Mongolia

54.72

2213

4.41

18.435

 

Ordos

Ordos

2.89

1697

3.33

1.569

 

Xilin Gol

Xilin Gol

3.20

3029

1.59

0.415

 

Hulunbeier

Hulunbeier

32.14

10570

12.16

1.674

Shaanxi

  

42.92

1149

18.99

8.804

 

Yulin

North

Shaanxi

2.80

835

5.40

0.753

 

Xianyang

Binchang

0.78

160

6.17

1.135

Gansu

  

26.73

1046

5.26

12.308

 

Pingliang

East Gansu

0.67

324

6.04

0.381

 

Qinyang

East Gansu

0.85

383

3.11

0.211

Ningxia

  

1.18

186

2.03

6.935

 

Yinchuan

Ningdong

0.10

51

2.94

2.413

Xinjiang

  

83.2

3814

5.06

59.014

 

Hami

Hami

1.25

2185

0.90

1.245

 

Changji

East Junggar

3.45

2260

4.58

4.335

 

Yili

Yili

16.24

6540

28.73

4.907

Provincial level data are extracted and calculated from Chinese Water Resources Bulletin (MWR 2013a). Data at prefecture city level are collected and calculated by the authors from various sources including water resource bulletin at provincial or river basin level

aWater resources modulus is calculated by dividing local water resources by the area of a prefecture city

bThere are three coal power industrial clusters in Shanxi, i.e., Southeast Shanxi, Central Shanxi and North Shanxi, which cover many prefecture cities. Therefore, we use provincial level indicators in Shanxi to represent water resource conditions in these three coal power industrial clusters

When evaluating the energy-water nexus in coal power industry, it is important to distinguish water withdrawal and water consumption. Water ‘withdrawal’ is defined as the amount of water removed from the ground or diverted from a water source for use, while water ‘consumption’ refers to the amount of water that is evaporated, transpired or incorporated into products (Macknick et al. 2012). Large volume of cooling water is needed in once-through cooling power plants, but the cooling water is returned to the original water body with higher temperature. Therefore, water withdrawal by once-through cooling power plants is significantly higher (about two orders of magnitude) than their water consumption (Macknick et al. 2012; Zhang and Anadon 2013). On the other hand, in recirculating cooling power plants, most of the water withdrawal is evaporated from the cooling system. Although air-cooling power plants do not need water for cooling, they still consume water in many other processes, for example, ash removal, emission control and purification, boiler make-up water, and many other auxiliary systems. The volume of water consumption is slightly lower than that of water withdrawal in recirculating cooling and air-cooling plants.

Almost all coal power plants in the North and Northwest China have applied either recirculating cooling or air-cooling technology (Zhang et al. 2014, 2016). Therefore, water withdrawals for coal power generation in these regions are mostly consumed and no longer available for other users. This will intensify the competition for scarce water in regions under water resource pressure. According to Song et al. (2012), the total volume of water withdrawals per year by the planned large coalmines and coal power plants in north and northwest China would amount to 9.98 billion m3 in 2015, which are equivalent to one-fourth of the total water quota of the Yellow River (the maximum amount of water withdrawal from the Yellow River allowed by the government) specified by the Chinese central government.

Furthermore, the coal production chain (including mining, coal power generation, coking, and coal-to-chemicals) can cause water-related environmental damages and ecological degradation, such as destroyed aquifers, soil erosion, land subsidence, vegetation degradation, and desertification (Bian et al. 2010). These problems disturb the water cycle and intensify the scarcity of water. Many empirical studies carried out in the Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces have shown that coal mining has led to significant reductions in river runoff (Wang 2009), decreases in underground water levels (Lu 2009), and exacerbated water shortages in rural areas (Li and Liu 2007).

Without effective and stringent water resource management policies, the local hydrologic cycle could be under extraordinary pressure due to over-extraction and inappropriate exploration. Competition for water could put agricultural users and even domestic users in an inferior place compared with industrial users if proper water resource allocation scheme and benefit transfer mechanisms are not in place. The following sections will introduce alternative policies for water resource management in the coal power industry currently implemented in China.

Technology Policies for Improving Water Efficiency

The water intensity of coal power generation is determined by many factors, including cooling systems, size of the electric generating unit (EGU), level of pollution control, and water conservation measures used. A variety of technology policies associated with the above factors could influence the water efficiency of coal power industry. Generally speaking, technology policies can be classified into three categories: (1) water withdrawal standards, (2) mandatory or non-mandatory technological requirements in administrative regulations, and (3) guidelines for water-saving technologies.

The power industry in China is still in the transition stage, creating many opportunities to apply up-to-date technologies in new power plants. The government has developed an approval process to ensure all proposed new power plants comply with relevant technology policies and environmental regulations. The approval process can be divided into two stages. First, utility companies are required to apply for a number of permits and obtain official approvals from several government departments while preparing for a new power plant. Permits relevant to water resources include: (1) a water withdrawal permit issued by a river basin commission authorized by the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR); (2) approval of an environmental impact assessment report issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection; and (3) approval of the water and soil conservation plan issued by a river basin commission authorized by the Ministry of Water Resources. After obtaining all supporting documents and required permits, the utility company applies to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) for final approval of the proposed project. During these administrative procedures, government authorities are responsible for reviewing whether the proposed new power plant meets all technological requirements associated with water conservation and water resource management.

Water withdrawal standard is a basic regulatory tool for water resource management in power industry. A new national water withdrawal standard with more comprehensive and stringent requirements for coal power plants (GB/T 18916.1-2012) was issued in 2012 to replace the old one issued in 2002 (GB/T 18916.1-2002). As shown in Table 2, two types of limitations were formulated. Water withdrawal limits per unit installed capacity, measured in m3/(s GW), are applied to the design of coal power plants. Government authorities determine the water demand for a proposed new power plant according to the technologies applied and the associated limitation on water withdrawal. During their operation, power plants are required to comply with water withdrawal limits per unit electricity generation, measured in m3/MWh. However, insufficient monitoring capability in China’s water authorities hinders the implementation of water withdrawal limitations in practice.
Table 2

Water withdrawal standards for coal power plants (GAQSIQ 2002; GAQSIQ, SAC 2012)

Type of quota

Cooling technology

GB/T 18916.1-2002b

GB/T 18916.1-2012c

<300 MW

≥300 MW

<300 MW

≥300 and < 500 MW

≥500 MW

Water withdrawal limitations of per unit electricity generation, m3/MWh

Recirculating cooling

4.80

3.84

3.20

2.75

2.40

Once-through coolinga

1.20

0.72

0.79

0.54

0.46

Air cooling

0.95

0.63

0.53

Water withdrawal limitations of per unit installed capacity, m3/(s GW)

Recirculating cooling

1.0

0.8

0.88

0.77

0.77

Once-through coolinga

0.20

0.12

0.19

0.13

0.11

Air cooling

0.23

0.15

0.13

aIt should be noted that non-consumptive cooling water withdrawal in once-through cooling power plants is not regulated and not included in the standards

bGB/T 18916.1-2002 took effect on 2005-1-1

cGB/T 18916.1-2012 took effect on 2013-1-1

Promulgating a new national standard in China usually takes a long time and involves complicated procedures, resulting in some technical standards heavily lagged behind the development of new technologies and environmental management. This is more serious in China’s power sector which is expanding rapidly and technologies are evolving quickly. To fill in the gap of standards, Chinese governments have promulgated various policy papers to manage water efficiency of coal power plants. In May 2004, the NDRC issued a document requiring new power plants in water-scarce northern regions to adopt large air-cooled units with water withdrawal intensities less than 0.18 m3/(s GW) (NDRC 2004). It also required to prohibit the extraction of groundwater in the northern region, utilize unconventional water sources such as reclaimed wastewater and mine water (to be discussed in “Utilizing Unconventional Water Resources” section), and adopt water-saving technologies such as dry flue gas desulfurization. It is noteworthy that this policy actually took effect before the national standard for water withdrawal limitations (GB/T 18916.1-2002) issued in December 2002, which was effective on 2005-1-1 and did not include any requirement for air-cooled power plants.

A similar situation occurred when the latest policy on implementing water resource impact assessment for proposed large coal power industrial clusters was issued by the Ministry of Water Resources in December 2013 (MWR 2013b). These regulations provide an urgent official response to wide concerns about the potential impacts of coal power industry expansion in northwest China on the region’s scarce water resources. According to these regulations, air-cooling technology is mandatory for new coal power plants in water-deficient areas and their water withdrawal intensity should be lower than 0.1 m3/(s GW). Again, these requirements are more stringent than the new water withdrawal standards that came into effect in 2013 and set the water withdrawal limit for air-cooled units larger than 500 MW at 0.13 m3/(s GW).

Technology guides are also important parts of water resource management policies in the coal power industry. Official documents belonging to this type include: “Guidelines for water saving in thermal power plants,” issued in October 2001 (SETC 2001), “China water conservation technology policy outline,” issued in April 2005 (NDRC et al. 2005), “Guidelines for cleaner production audits in fossil fuel-fired power enterprises,” issued in January 2012 (NEA 2012), and “Water efficiency guide for key industrial sectors,” issued in September 2013 (MIIT et al. 2013). These documents serve multiple purposes in various stages of power plant development ranging from planning, design, construction to operation, for example, directing the research and development of water conservation technologies, facilitating policy-making by government departments, providing information on technology choice for newly built plants and retrofitted existing plants, and setting benchmarks for evaluating and comparing water efficiency.

Last but not the least, water conservation often appears as a benefit of other energy and environmental policies and vice versa (King et al. 2013, Bartos and Chester 2014). Power plants using outdated technologies usually have low water efficiency alongside poor energy efficiency and environmental performance. China’s unprecedented effort to implement energy conservation and pollution reduction policies in the recent decade, especially eliminating backward production capacities, has contributed greatly to water efficiency improvement in the coal power industry. During the period of 2006–2010 (the 11th five-year planning period), a total of 77 GW of small-sized outdated power generators were phased out, contributing significantly to energy efficiency improvement and pollution reduction in the power sector (Wu and Huo 2014). In contrast, driven by the purpose of energy saving, large supercritical and ultra-supercritical EGUs are diffusing very rapidly in China. Units larger than 600 MW have grown from 13 % of the total coal power capacity in 2005 to 36 % in 2010 (Wang et al. 2014). Because larger units generally have lower water intensities than smaller units given the same cooling technology, this change saves both energy and water. Table 3 presents the average intensities of water consumption and energy consumption of coal power generation with different cooling technologies and unit sizes based on the data reported in the coal power plant energy performance benchmarking and competition conducted by China Electricity Council in 2012 (CEC 2013b). The average values of water consumption in Chinese coal power plants are comparable to the median values of water consumption in corresponding plants in the United States as reported by Macknick et al. (2012) and Sanders (2015). The water efficiencies of large-sized EGUs in China are not any worse than those in the United States.
Table 3

Average water consumption and energy consumption intensity of coal-fired EGUs in China (CEC 2013b)

Capacity of EGUs

Water consumption (m3/MWh)

Energy consumption (gce/kWh)a

Once-through

Recirculating

Air-cooling

Wet coolingb

Air-cooling

1000 MW

0.27

1.83

0.31

288.3

307.5

600 MW

0.29

1.97

0.32

308.1

331.1

300 MW

0.36

2.13

0.40

322.9

348.3

100–200 MW

0.47

2.13

0.59

332.9

354.2

agce/kWh refers to grams of coal equivalent per kWh

bwet cooling represents the average of once-through cooling and recirculating cooling

The aforementioned measures have led to tremendous technological progress and improvements in water efficiency. One of the remarkable stories is the rapid diffusion of air-cooling technology in coal power plants during the past decade. According to Zhang et al. (2014), China’s air-cooled coal power capacity reached 112 GW at the end of 2012, accounting for 14 % of the total thermal power capacity in China. Compared with re-circulating cooling, air-cooling saved 832–942 million m3 of water consumption in 2012, which is comparable to nearly two-thirds of the total annual water use in Beijing, where a population of 20 million resides. However, air-cooling technology has shortcomings in terms of higher capital investment and lower thermal efficiency compared with wet cooling technology. The water saving benefits were achieved at the costs of an additional 24.3–31.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (Zhang et al. 2014).

As shown in Fig. 3, water efficiency of coal power generation has improved significantly since 2000. The national average water withdrawal factor (excluding saline water withdrawal and once-through cooling water withdrawal) decreased from 4.13 m3/MWh in 2000 to 2.45 m3/MWh in 2010, a reduction of 40 %. In addition, the wastewater discharge factor has decreased from 1.38 m3/MWh in 2000 to 0.32 m3/MWh in 2010, a reduction of 77 % (Zhang et al. 2012; MIIT et al. 2013). This is the result of multiple factors, e.g., diffusion of key water conservation technologies, commissioning of large EGUs with higher water efficiency and better in-plant water management techniques such as effluents recycling and reuse.
Fig. 3

Average water withdrawal and wastewater discharge factors of coal power generation in China from 2000 to 2010 (Zhang et al. 2012; MIIT et al. 2013). Notes Saline water and once-through cooling water are not included in the calculation of water withdrawal factors in this figure

Utilizing Unconventional Water Resources

Utilizing unconventional water resources, including seawater, reclaimed municipal wastewater, and produced mine water, is a key measure to alleviating freshwater shortages in China (Cheng et al. 2009). All of these alternative water sources have been used in China’s coal power industry.

Seawater

In 2005, China issued a development plan for seawater utilization (NDRC et al. 2005) setting ambitious national targets. The coal power industry has become the most important user of seawater. Power plants use seawater in two ways: (1) directly used as cooling water for condenser, and (2) providing boiler feed water and other makeup water after desalination.

Seawater is the most important water source for cooling thermal power plants, including coal and nuclear power plants, in coastal China, particularly in Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces (Zhang et al. 2016). The total volume of seawater used for cooling in China amounted to 88.3 billion m3 in 2013 (SOA 2014). The amount of seawater withdrawal by thermal power plants has already exceeded that of freshwater. According to the Chinese water resources bulletin (MWR 2014a), the amount of fresh water withdrawal for once-through cooling by power plants was 49.5 billion m3 in 2013.

As an alternative to once-through cooling, re-circulating seawater cooling is a novel technology demonstrated and commercialized in China in mid-2000s. A major environmental benefit of re-circulating seawater cooling is that it avoids discharging heated seawater into nearby waters and therefore prevents thermal pollution and protects inshore ecosystems (Wang et al. 2007). By the end of 2013, there were four power plants using re-circulating seawater cooling located in Tianjin, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces with a total capacity of 4.6 GW (SOA 2014).

China’s seawater desalination capacity has been expanding since 2005, when the national plan for seawater utilization was issued. Figure 4 presents the annual and cumulative installed capacity for seawater desalination in China. By the end of 2013, 103 projects with a total desalination capacity of 0.9 million m3 per day have been put into operation in China (SOA 2014). 26 projects with a total capacity of 0.47 million m3 per day are in coastal thermal power plants where freshwater supply is insufficient. It should be noted that desalinated seawater is not used for cooling in these plants, but is used in other processes, such as makeup water in boilers and auxiliary systems. In 2013, the average cost of seawater desalination with a capacity larger than 10,000 m3/day was 6.95 yuan/m3. As the gap between freshwater prices and seawater desalination costs shrinks, more newly built power plants in coastal areas will likely rely on seawater desalination for water supply.
Fig. 4

Annual installed and cumulative capacities of seawater desalination in China (SOA 2014)

Reclaimed Water

During the 2000s, the Chinese government promulgated a series of water quality standards of urban wastewater reuse to facilitate reclaimed water utilization (Yi et al. 2011). Ambitious national plans for the construction of municipal wastewater treatment and reuse facilities were developed for the 11th (2006–2010) and 12th (2011–2015) five-year periods, respectively (State Council 2012). According to the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban–Rural Development, the total capacity of wastewater reclamation increased from 10.82 million m3/day in 2010 to 20.65 million m3/day in 2014, while the amount of reclaimed water reuse reached 3.63 billion m3 in 2014, accounting for 9 % of treated municipal wastewater (MOHURD 2015).

For power plants within or near urban areas, treated municipal wastewater could be an ideal alternative water source. Beijing Heat and Power Plant, which belongs to China’s Huaneng Group, was the first coal power plant reported to use reclaimed water from a municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) in China. Since June 2000 when the reclaimed water reuse system was put into operation, it has saved approximately 12 million m3 of freshwater for Beijing each year. Since then, there have been quite many successful examples of using reclaimed water in power plants in northern China (Gao and Wu 2010). Early in 2004, the NDRC encouraged integrated planning for new coal power plants and WWTPs in northern China (NDRC 2004). A recent policy document titled “Regulations on implementing water resource evaluation for the planning and development of large coal power industrial clusters” was issued by MWR in 2013 and required that new coal-fired power plants in northern China, an area facing water scarcity challenges, should make it a priority to use reclaimed wastewater and mine water; surface water withdrawal should be strictly controlled and groundwater (except mine water) withdrawal is prohibited.

Although a comprehensive national survey of water sources at plant level is not currently available, there is no doubt that reclaimed wastewater from WWTPs is playing an important role in meeting the water demands for coal power generation in northern China. According to the data collection and estimation by the authors, in the Yellow River Basin (YRB), for example, reclaimed water from WWTPs accounted for 58.3 % of the water withdrawal quotas issued to new coal power plants by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) of the MWR from November 2009 to December 2014, as shown in Fig. 5. In total, 417.6 million m3 of water withdrawal quotas have been issued for a total capacity of 84 GW, in which 163.0 million m3 is surface water, 243.2 million m3 is reclaimed water and 11.4 million m3 is mine water. In other words, in the YRB, where a remarkable electricity-water conflict has occurred, new coal power plants will rely on reclaimed water more than freshwater in the future.
Fig. 5

Water source structure of proposed new power plants in the Yellow River Basin. Notes Information on water source is collected by the authors from water withdrawal permits issued to the proposed new power plants. The Yellow River Conservancy Commission of the MWR is authorized to issue water withdrawal permits according to the regulation titled “Detailed rules for the management of water withdrawal permits in the Yellow River Basin,” which came into effect on July 2009

Mine Water

Compared with seawater and reclaimed water, the share of mine water used in the coal power industry is still quite low. Mine water only accounted for 0.49 % (156 million m3) of the national total water withdrawal quotas issued to coal power plants from 2006 to June 2009 (Shen and Han 2011). For the YRB, as shown in Fig. 5, only 11.4 million m3 of mine water quotas have been issued since November 2009, accounting for 2.7 % of the total water withdrawal quotas issued. Mine water is mostly used in pithead power plants. There are many other competitive needs which may limit the utilization of mine water for power plant cooling, such as mine water reinjection and coal washing. However, the potential for using mine water is still high in China. According to a development plan of mine water utilization issued in 2013 (NDRC and NEA 2013), the national total amount of coal mine water is expected to increase from 6.1 billion m3 in 2010 to 7.1 billion m3 in 2015. The overall mine water reuse rate is targeted to be 75 % in 2015, compared with 59 % in 2010.

Pricing Scarce Water Resources

There have been many discussions and debates concerning economic instruments such as various forms of water tariff and water rights trading (to be discussed in “Water Permits Transfer” section) for water resource management. It is widely recognized that pricing water resources can provide incentives to improve the efficiency of water use (Mohayidin et al. 2009; OECD 2010). In China, raw water was provided to users almost free of charge until 1985, when the State Council promulgated an ordinance on accounting for, collecting and managing the raw water charges of water intake facilities (State Council 1985). In the early years, rates were low and it was difficult to collect the water resource fee because local water resource management authorities did not have sufficient capacity to strictly enforce the ordinance (Fang et al. 2002). In the mid-2000s, China reframed and redesigned its water resource fee levying system, emphasizing fee increases and strengthening the authorities’ ability to collect and manage the fees (Zhong and Mol 2010). The pricing of scarce water resources has already been seen as an issue of central importance for water resource management in contemporary China.

The level of water resource fee should reflect the degree of water scarcity in a specific region. Therefore, there is no national-wide uniform rate of water resource fee in China. When the central government outlines general policies regarding the level of water resource fees, local governments are responsible for making specific and detailed policies of levying water resource fee. In January 2013, as a measure of implementing the most stringent water resource management system, a notification requiring all provinces to increase the rates of water resource fee was issued by the NDRC, MWR, and the Ministry of Finance (NDRC et al. 2013). Table 4 presents the current water resource fee rates for coal power generation and for other industries, as well as fee rates that should be reached by the end of 2015 at provincial level.
Table 4

Rates of surface water resource fee for coal power industry and other industrial sectors at provincial level

Province

Effective date

Rates of water resource fee for

Minimum average fee rate of surface water resources to be reached by the end of 2015 (yuan/m3)

Once-through cooling power plants

Recirculating cooling and air-cooling power plantsa

Industrial sectors (yuan/m3)

Beijing

2014-5-1

N.A.

N.A.

1.63(tap water withdrawal);

2.61(direct surface water withdrawal)

1.6

Tianjin

2010-11-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.04(non-consumptive use);

0.4(consumptive use)

1.6

Hebei

2010-11-9

5 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.4

0.4

Shanxi

2009-1-1

2 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.5

0.5

Inner Mongolia

2015-1-1

3 yuan/MWh

0.5 yuan/m3

0.4–0.5

0.5

Liaoning

2010-10-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.5

0.3

Jilin

2015-1-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.25

0.3

Heilongjiang

2010-8-1

0.02 yuan/m3

0.1 yuan/m3

0.2

0.3

Shanghai

2014-1-1

1.5 yuan/MWh

0.05 yuan/m3

0.1

0.1

Jiangsu

2014-9-15

0.002 yuan/m3

N.A.

0.3

0.2

Zhejiang

2014-10-1

0.02 yuan/m3

N.A.

0.2

0.2

Anhui

2015-9-1

1 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.08–0.12

0.1

Fujian

2015-3-1

6 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.1–0.12

0.1

Jiangxi

2014-9-1

2.5 yuan/MWh

1.5 yuan/MWh

0.09

0.1

Shandong

2002-7-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.25–0.6

0.4

Henan

2005-5-1

2 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.25

0.4

Hubei

2013-12-1

3 yuan/MWh

0.05 yuan/m3

0.15

0.1

Hunan

2013-10-1

3 yuan/MWh

1 yuan/MWh

0.1

0.1

Guangdong

2009-4-1

0.005 yuan/m3

N.A.

0.12

0.2

Guangxi

2014-5-1

0.006 yuan/m3

0.0375 yuan/m3

0.045

0.1

Haina

2013-9-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.08

0.1

Chongqing

2015-2-1

5 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.1

0.1

Sichuan

2014-12-1

0.01 yuan/m3

0.1 yuan/m3

0.08–0.1

0.1

Guizhou

2015-1-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.08

0.1

Shaanxi

2010-1-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.35–0.5

0.3

Gansu

2014-8-1

1 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.15

0.2

Qinghai

2005-10-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.03–0.08

0.1

Ningxia

2014-1-1

N.A.

N.A.

0.2

0.3

Xinjiang

2005-5-1

5 yuan/MWh

N.A.

0.1–0.12

0.2

The data in this table were collected by the authors from policies regarding water resource fee in each province issued before June 2015. Many provinces differentiate the fee rates of surface water and ground water. Only rates of surface water are presented here. Information of Yunnan province and Tibet autonomous region is not available

aOnly Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang have air-cooling power plants (Zhang et al. 2014)

As shown in Table 4, 19 provinces set separate fee rates for once-through cooling power plants. Other provinces without specific fee rates are mostly located in northern or northwest China, where once-through cooling technology is rarely used. Two methods are used to define the rates of water resource fee: volumetric rates measured in ‘yuan/m3’ and non-volumetric rates measured in ‘yuan/MWh’ (Johansson 2000; von Dörte Ehrensperger 2004). The wide use of non-volumetric rates is mainly because of insufficient regulatory capacity on monitoring the actual volume of cooling water withdrawal.

Anhui and Gansu province have the lowest fee rate for once-through cooling power plants, i.e., 1 yuan/MWh. This is roughly equivalent to 0.001 yuan/m3, if assuming a typical water withdrawal factor of 102.5 m3/MWh of a subcritical coal power plant with once-through cooling (Macknick et al. 2012). Fujian, Hebei and Xinjiang province have comparatively high fee rates, i.e., 5–6 yuan/MWh. It is noteworthy that volumetric rates in Heilongjiang and Zhejiang province are 0.02 yuan/m3, or roughly equivalent to 20 yuan/MWh, which is significantly higher than all other regions.

In terms of recirculating cooling (or air-cooling) plants, eight provinces set specific fee rates, which are usually lower than the fee rates for other industrial sectors. For example, in Hubei province, water resource fee rate is set to be 0.05 yuan/m3 for recirculating cooling power plants, compared with 0.15 yuan/m3 for other industries.

Generally speaking, water resource fee accounts for only a very small portion of the total cost of electricity generation. For example, the benchmark price of coal electricity fed into the grid in Hebei province was 0.43 yuan/kWh in 2012 (CEC 2013a), while the water resource fee was 0.005 yuan/kWh, accounting for roughly 1 % of the benchmark price. These percentages are much lower in other provinces which have lower fee rates.

It is also noteworthy that the incentives for water resource conservation by different levying methods could be very different. Generally speaking, an effective levying system requires accurate measurement and volumetric charging system (Johansson 2000). Non-volumetric rates provide convenience for administrative authorities, in case water intake facilities of power plants are not equipped with metering instruments supervised by the government. However, if a fixed rate of water resource fee is applied to per unit electricity generated, there will be less motivation for power plants to reduce their water withdrawals. This levying method may also benefit small-sized and backward power plants with lower water efficiency, since they use more water than large-sized advanced plants to generate the same amount of electricity. On the other hand, volumetric rates can provide direct incentives for power plants to adopt water conservation measures, if the water resource fee is higher than the water conservation costs.

The level of water resource fee rates for coal power generation could be influenced by many factors. Degree of water scarcity is an important determinant, but apparently not the only one. For example, although Shanxi is suffering from much more severe water scarcity than Fujian, fee rate for once-through cooling power plants in Shanxi is only one-third of that in Fujian, i.e., 2 yuan/MWh in Shanxi compared to 6 yuan/MWh in Fujian. A local government may provide preferential policies, such as lower rates of water resource fee, to coal power industry, if it is regarded as a key industry supporting local economic development.

Water Permits Transfer

Tradable water permit is a market-based tool for water resource management that has been successful in Australia and the U. S. (Borghesi 2014). China has attempted to introduce the water right concept into water resources management over the past decade and the central government highlighted the importance of water right in 2014 when the Ministry of Water Resources issued a specific policy paper about selecting seven provinces to pilot water right schemes (MWR 2014b). In China, tradable water permits are rooted in the water withdrawal permit system. Policies on tradable permits are specified in the regulations entitled as “Administrative Regulations for Water Withdrawal Permits and Water Resource Fee Collection” issued by the State Council in 2006 (State Council 2006). The procedure for issuing a water withdrawal permit is illustrated in Fig. 6. During the preparation stage of a project, the entity desiring a permit should first entrust a third party organization to develop a water resource argumentation report in which the hydrologic conditions of the project location, the quantity and quality of water needed, and the predicted impacts on local water resources and the environment are evaluated. This report serves as a technical supporting material for the application for the water withdrawal permit. River basin commissions are responsible for reviewing the applications and deciding how much water the entity should be permitted to withdraw. A formal water withdrawal permit is issued after the regulatory authority inspects the project during its trial operation and verifies that all water intake and drainage facilities are operating according to the regulations (Zhong et al. 2015).
Fig. 6

The procedure for issuing water withdrawal permit in China

One of the key duties of river basin commissions is to ensure that the total volume of water withdrawal issued by the permits does not exceed the water withdrawal cap assigned to the catchment by the Ministry of Water Resources. Along with rapid urbanization and industrialization, competition for scarce water resources has become more intensified due to growing demands from industrial sectors and urban households. Such a situation calls for a flexible mechanism for transferring water permits among different users.

Pilot projects for re-allocating water resources from irrigation to power plants began in the early 2000s in the YRB. In June 2002, the local water resource management authority in Inner Mongolia applied to the YRCC for a water permit for a new large coal power plant (the Dalate Power Plant belonging to China Huaneng Group). This application was denied because the total water withdrawal from the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia had already exceeded the quota issued by the State Council at that time. The proposed project was therefore stymied. The conflict between the demand for water by new energy facilities and the limited water permits available in water-scarce catchments became a constraint on local economic development. In contrast, water use in Inner Mongolia was excessively dominated by the agricultural sector. Of the water withdrawn from the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia, 96.7 % was used for irrigation in 2002, while the industrial sector only accounted for 2.3 % (YRCC 2003). Moreover, the water use efficiency of the irrigation canal systems was low due to seepage and a lack of maintenance. The situation was quite similar in the nearby province of Ningxia. A strong potential for saving water in the agricultural sector and an urgent need for water in the rapidly expanding energy sector created opportunities to move scarce water from crop irrigation with lower water resource productivity to electricity generation with higher water resource productivity.

In 2003, the YRCC approved Inner Mongolia and Ningxia to conduct pilot programs for transferring water permits in the YRB. Soon after that, in May 2004, the MWR issued an administrative measure implementing water permit transfers (MWR 2004). As a result, a new power plant in its proposal stage can “buy” water permits from irrigation districts by investing in water-saving irrigation projects, usually irrigation ditch seepage control projects. Under the supervision of the YRCC, the volume of water saved in the irrigation districts can then be transferred to the power plant, meeting its water demand.

Up to June 2013, 30 agriculture-to-industry water right transfer projects had been approved in Inner Mongolia and 9 in Ningxia Province. The total water quotas transferred amounted to 337 million m3. Power plants buying these quotas invested 2.5 billion yuan in water conservation projects for irrigation districts selling these quotas. The average price of water quota was 7.45 yuan/m3 for 25-year transfer period (Chen 2014), or 0.298 yuan/m3 if annualized over the entire transfer period. The average annualized cost of water quota for per unit water withdrawal was generally lower than the rate of water resource fee in Inner Mongolia (0.5 yuan/m3, see Table 4), but higher than that in Ningxia (0.2 yuan/m3, see Table 4). A successful water rights transfer project results in a win–win situation. For new coal power plants in northwest China, “buying” water from irrigation districts is an important way of obtaining water withdrawal permits, without which the construction project cannot be approved by the NDRC. These investments from power plants help irrigation districts renovate their low-efficiency irrigation systems. Without these investments, they may not be able to afford those water-saving projects. Costs related to water use, such as the engineering costs of water extraction and water resource fees, could also be reduced due to the lower total amount of water withdrawal. For the river basin as a whole, the expansion of the coal power industry does not increase the total volume of water withdrawn, which is of core importance for water resource management.

Agriculture-to-industry water right transfers in the YRB in China have different social and political backgrounds from those implemented in the United States and Australia. Based on experiences in developed countries, there is a variety of preconditions for a successful water right transfer system, e.g., secure and transparent property right in water, laws that set out how rights can be traded and effective enforcement system, monitoring and regulatory capacities (Webber et al. 2008; Brewer et al. 2008; Dinar and Mody 2004; Matthews 2004). Many of those preconditions are absent in China, especially well-defined water rights (Xie et al. 2008). The implemented water right transfer projects in the YRB were mostly arranged by water resource management authorities, rather than deals made between buyers and sellers in a real water market (Zhao et al. 2013). The prices of water rights were mainly determined by the engineering costs of water-saving irrigation projects. Other price components, such as scarcity rent of water resources, risk compensation for irrigation water shortage in dry years and ecological compensation for affected parties, have not yet been considered in the transfer price (Pei et al. 2007; Chen et al. 2009). The flawed water right system and price forming mechanism make water right transfers in the YRB like a regulatory measure, rather than a market-based tool for water resource management. But these water right transfer projects are still pragmatic approaches to control water withdrawal in the thirty YRB. Low irrigation water efficiency due to seepage and evaporation in the YRB (Webber et al. 2008), which created considerable rooms for water conservation through engineering measures, is the key foundation for water right transfer in the Chinese context.

Discussion and Conclusions

The Chinese government has recognized water resource scarcity as one of the biggest environmental challenges. China’s progress in urbanization and industrialization will intensify the competition for its limited water resources. During the past decades, the share of agriculture water use has been decreasing while that of the industrial sectors has been increasing. This trend will likely last for a long time in the future, highlighting the importance of effective water resource management and water conservation in the power industry. The changing spatial patterns of coal mining and coal power generation, two industries that are moving toward the arid northwest regions of China, add to the urgency of preventing negative impacts on the water cycle due to large scale energy production.

While widespread worries about China’s electricity-water conflict are currently appearing in mass media, this review shows that there are promising approaches to reduce the pressure on water resources posed by the expansion of energy sector. A variety of policy instruments have already been implemented for water resource management in the coal power industry. In summary, implementing mandatory technical requirements for water conservation, utilizing unconventional water resources, providing economic incentives by pricing water resources, and creating a mechanism for transferring water permits comprise the policy framework for managing water use in China’s coal power industry.

These policy measures have improved the water efficiency of China’s coal power sector tremendously. Technology policies were quite successful, since mandatory requirements regarding technology selection and water withdrawal could be implemented through the permitting system for new plants. However, there are still many gaps to be filled. The rates of water resource fees need to be increased, according to the order from the central government. Further study is needed to determine the extent to which a water resource fee could stimulate the application of more water-efficient technologies and alternative water conservation practices in coal power plants. Because relevant information regarding the cost of water-saving technologies is rather scattered and usually presented in plant-level case studies, information should be collected and integrated to further evaluate the costs and benefits of water-saving technologies.

An information gap also exists in understanding the potential of unconventional water resources for coal power generation. Data about the costs of alternative water sources, i.e., surface water, ground water, reclaimed wastewater, mine water and seawater desalination, are incomplete and are usually local-specific. The cost variations of alternative water sources across regions may imply very different trends of water source mix in different places in the future. More efforts on data collection are needed to carry out techno-economic analysis on the potentials of using unconventional water resources in the power industry. In terms of water right transfer policy, the political and legislation background of water market in China is very different from that in western countries. Although existing agriculture-to-industry water right transfer practices in China did not have many characteristics of real market-based mechanism, these efforts have made practical contributions for water conservation in the YRB, especially in funding irrigation seepage control projects. Continuous monitoring and maintenances are essential to making the water conservation benefits reliable and lasting. If seepage control projects are not well maintained within the transfer period (usually 25 years), their water-saving benefits could diminish, eventually leading to an increase in the total amount of water withdrawn within the district. Attentions should also be paid to other barriers of agriculture water transfer such as social equity issues and farmers’ livelihood. Water reallocation under water stress should be shared by communities at all levels to ensure equal access of water for all groups (Cai 2008).

Furthermore, intensifying conflict between energy and water calls for coordination and integration of energy and water administration institutions (Siddiqi et al. 2013). Many barriers, both technical and institutional, have yet to be overcome. These include overlapping rights and liabilities, different professional perspectives on the energy-water nexus, different decision-making processes, different policy priorities and unequal influences in the decision-making process. These problems bring new challenges for both researchers and practitioners in the future.

Notes

Acknowledgments

Chao Zhang is supported by National Science Foundation of China (71503182), "Chenguang Program" of Shanghai Education Development Foundation (14CG20) and Tongji University Sustainable Development and New-Type Urbanization Think Tank. Lijin Zhong, Xiaotian Fu from the World Resources Institute are supported by the Energy Foundation, Irish Aid, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affair, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affair and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Supplementary material

267_2016_678_MOESM1_ESM.doc (61 kb)
A list of water resource management policies and regulations in China’s coal power industry with brief descriptions is presented in Table A1. Supplementary material 1 (DOC 61 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Chao Zhang
    • 1
  • Lijin Zhong
    • 2
  • Xiaotian Fu
    • 2
  • Zhongnan Zhao
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Economics and ManagementTongji UniversityShanghaiChina
  2. 2.World Resources Institute ChinaBeijingChina
  3. 3.General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning and DesignMinistry of Water Resources of ChinaBeijingChina

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