Photo: Land Rover Our Plant/Flickr
India has crossed an important renewable energy milestone: A report from HSBC finds that the cost of producing electricity from new wind power is not more expensive than that from a new coal power plant in the country. Solar power should pass that mark in just a few years, earlier than previously expected.
Currently renewable energy contributes about 6 percent to India's energy mix, a figure the nation hopes to increase to 20 percent by the end of the decade. Current peak electricity demand in India exceeds supply by about 12 GW of capacity, resulting in daily power cuts in even major cities—with the shortfall being made up, by those individuals and business who can afford it, by diesel generators.
The report dives deeply into the financial aspects of renewables and price parity, but what I find more interesting is one crucial environmental factor that further bodes well for installing more renewables and forgoing coal.
From the report:
Coal stress [that is supply constraints] has been a key driver of renewables growth in India. We now see water stress as also supporting renewables growth. For the third consecutive year in a row, some coal-based capacity has been closed down during the pre-monsoon period by water shortages. We note that thermal power generation is the largest water consumer within the industry segment in India.
And, in general, as a point supporting renewables growth, apart from policy promoting it:
India is a now a water stressed country; situation is likely to worsen further with economic growth and increasing population.
I point this out because the water intensity of energy production isn't something that is normally in the front of the discussion of what new energy sources are best in a given circumstance.
A report from the River Network, released nearly one year ago to today, summed up the water footprint of the leading sources of electricity (minus, somewhat oddly, hydropower). Coal power was far and away the greatest user of water, with one megawatt-hour of electricity from coal requiring just about 16,700 gallons of water to produce, taking account everything from the mining of the coal to the operation of the power plant. Nuclear power wasn't comparatively far behind, requiring roughly 15,500 gallons of water per megawatt-hour. Both wind power and solar PV were well under 500 gallons per MWh. Natural gas falls in between, but far closer to nuclear and coal than renewables.
Those figures are US-specific, but it does give more context for why pre-monsoon water shortages in India, and potential coming water shortages more broadly, strongly favor energy sources that require the least amount of water possible—which by and large are also those with the lowest carbon footprint.