Add this to the very long list of why burning coal for energy is a horrible idea. The world’s coal plants are using enough water to easily fulfill the needs of a billion people for a year. What’s more, they’re often located in places where water is already scarce.
A report by Greenpeace out this week looked at the water consumption of coal plants, which includes about 8,359 existing and 2,668 planned plants worldwide. It’s a lot of water. Just for reference, think about it like this: An average-sized, 500-megawatt coal plant slurps up an Olympic-size pool of water every three minutes. Water is used not only during energy production—mostly for cooling—but also to extract the coal from the ground.
About 44 percent of these existing plants were located in areas that already didn’t have enough fresh water. A whopping 25 percent of the new plants planned were in places where groundwater depletion was accelerated—and to make it worse, this depletion is sometimes due to coal or oil extraction. And then of course just having a coal plant around can degrade water quality even more, due to contamination from waste products.
The study very specifically demonstrates that the race to build more coal plants in China—over 200 are still planned in the country—is exacerbating a drought in the north. And some of China’s plants aren’t even operating at full capacity because there are already too many of them—but they haven’t been closed.
Although the scale of China’s coal consumption is off the charts, it’s not the bad guy here: The country is also taking some of the most dramatic steps to wean itself off coal-fired production. India, where air pollution is much worse, is not only burning coal, it’s also experiencing widespread devastation to its farmland due to lack of water. The US is doing a little better, with natural gas edging out coal as the most-used energy source, as of last year. The most coal-dependent nations of all? Poland and South Africa, where over 85 percent of energy comes from coal.
Some plants are experimenting with ways to reduce water consumption, like a method called “dry-cooling,” which could help a little. So might changing outdated water policy that gives priority access to coal plants. But the best solution, according to the report, is to dramatically curb our reliance on coal. Solar, wind, and natural gas are all many magnitudes better—and not just when it comes to conserving water.