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Benefits of infrastructure symbiosis between coal power and wastewater treatment


Symbiotic infrastructure systems facilitate deep decarbonization and efficient water use more than independent improvements in each type of infrastructure. Here we analyse strategies for bridging the coal power and wastewater treatment sectors in China by using sludge and reclaimed water from municipal wastewater treatment as alternative fuels and water sources for coal power generation. We develop a geodatabase covering ~2,400 coal-fired power plants and ~4,200 municipal wastewater treatment plants and conduct an integrated analysis using a customized optimization algorithm and life-cycle assessment. Such infrastructure symbiosis annually offers greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation of 8.6 Mt CO2 equivalent, equal to 29% and 0.28% of GHG emissions from the wastewater treatment and coal power sectors, respectively. The symbiosis annually conserves 3.0 billion m3 of freshwater, equal to 62% of freshwater consumption by the coal power sector, and provides annual cost savings of 7.5 (3.4–12) billion CNY. Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Guangdong contribute ~50% of GHG mitigation and ~60% of both freshwater conservation and cost savings due to the proximity of coal power and wastewater treatment plants. Approximately 80% of carbon, water and economic benefits can be achieved via 32% and 44% of all the plant-level linkages for sludge co-combustion and water reuse, respectively. Infrastructure symbiosis provides promising opportunities for both environmental and economic benefits. Policies to boost the establishment of energy–water infrastructure symbiosis would cost-effectively facilitate the achievement of China’s climate and water targets.

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Fig. 1: Environmental benefits of coal power-wastewater treatment symbiosis in China by province.
Fig. 2: Geographic distribution of environmental benefits of coal power-wastewater treatment symbiosis.
Fig. 3: Annual cost changes resulting from sludge co-combustion and water reuse in 2020 CNY.
Fig. 4: Characteristics of sludge and water linkages.
Fig. 5: Ranking of sludge and water linkages.

Data availability

The source data that support all figures and detailed data on CFPPs and WWTPs are provided as Source Data files and Supplementary Data. All data used for this study are provided or available from publicly accessible sources cited. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The codes that support the findings of this study are available at


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L.C., J.T., Y.G., W.H. and Y.L. acknowledge the National Natural Science Foundation of China number 41971267 and National Social Science Foundation of China number 18ZDA046. D.L.M. acknowledges funding from the Ma Huateng Foundation to Princeton University. Y.G. acknowledges the support from the Schmidt Science Fellows in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Y.G., D.L.M., J.T. and L.C. conceived the research idea and designed the study; Y.G., Y.L. and W.H. compiled the geodatabase on China’s coal power plants and wastewater treatment plants and the distance matrix between them; Y.G. designed the scenarios and optimization algorithm; Y.G. conducted the life-cycle assessment and cost–benefit analyses; Y.L. and W.H. contributed to the assessment framework and engineering analyses; Y.G., D.L.M., J.T. and L.C. analysed the results; Y.G., D.L.M. and L.C. wrote the paper with contributions from all authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Denise L. Mauzerall or Lyujun Chen.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Kejun Jiang, Chao Zhang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–2, Figs. 1–5, Tables 1–9 and References.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

Source data for supplementary figures and the inventory of coal power and wastewater treatment plants.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Detailed provincial-level results.

Source Data Fig. 2

Detailed grid-level results.

Source Data Fig. 3

Detailed provincial-level results.

Source Data Fig. 4

Detailed linkage-level results.

Source Data Fig. 5

Detailed linkage-level results.

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Guo, Y., Mauzerall, D.L., Lyu, Y. et al. Benefits of infrastructure symbiosis between coal power and wastewater treatment. Nat Sustain (2022).

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