Decoupling between water use and thermoelectric power generation growth in China


As energy and water are fundamentally intertwined, understanding the spatial and temporal evolution of thermoelectric water use and water stress is important for both sustainable energy development and water resource management. Here we compile high-resolution time-series (2000–2015) of water withdrawal and consumption inventories for China’s thermoelectric power sector to identify the driving forces behind changing water use patterns, and reveal the spatial distribution of thermoelectric water stress. We show that freshwater withdrawal has been decoupled from thermoelectric power generation growth at the national level due to the increased adoption of air-cooling and seawater-cooling technologies and advanced large generating units as well as water use efficiency improvements in this period. Nevertheless, the construction of large coal-fired power generation hubs has increased water stress in many arid and water-scarce catchments in northwestern regions of China. The westward development of the power industry necessitates water-withdrawal caps and the integration of water risk analysis into energy planning.

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Fig. 1: Decomposition analysis of thermoelectric water use.
Fig. 2: Lorenz curves of freshwater withdrawal against power generation for 2000 and 2015.
Fig. 3: Catchment-level spatial distribution of water stress exerted by thermoelectric power generation.

Data availability

Gridded data of thermoelectric power generation, freshwater withdrawal and freshwater consumption for 2015 are provided in the Supplementary Data. More calculation results are available upon request to the corresponding author.


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This study is supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (71503182) and World Resources Institute’s Slowing Coal Growth in Western China by Leveraging Water Stress project funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. C.Z. acknowledges the support from the Tongji University Sustainable Development and New-Type Urbanization Think-Tank.

Author information

C.Z. and L.Z. designed the study. C.Z. and L.Z. developed the database. C.Z. performed the water use inventory calculations and decomposition analysis. J.W. and L.Z. developed the water stress maps. C.Z. and J.W. performed the water stress analysis for thermoelectric power generation. C.Z. led the writing, and all the authors revised the manuscript together.

Correspondence to Chao Zhang.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–7, Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–8, Supplementary References

Supplementary Data

Gridded calculation results for thermoelectric power generation, freshwater withdrawal and freshwater consumption in 2015

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Zhang, C., Zhong, L. & Wang, J. Decoupling between water use and thermoelectric power generation growth in China. Nat Energy 3, 792–799 (2018).

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