Abstract

In 2015, 16.52 km3 of water was consumed for energy production in China, of which coal production, thermoelectric power and coke used 57.7%, 28.8% and 6.2%, respectively. Most water is consumed in China's northern (north and northwest) provinces where water is scarce and energy production's impact on water resources is further intensified in the north when this water scarcity is taken into account. The top five provinces with the largest consumption of scarce water by energy production are predominantly concentrated in the North China Plain. In 2015, nine provinces did not meet their Industrial Water Efficiency Improvement targets set by the ‘Three Red Lines’ water policy. Of these nine, five provinces (Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Xinjiang and Ningxia) are located in northern regions and face severe water stresses. Water consumed by energy production occupied more than 20% of the Industrial Water Allowances (IWAs) that were allowed by the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy in all five provinces. In Shanxi, energy consumption exceeded more than three times its IWA. Our findings underscore that energy production imposes severe pressure on water-scarce provinces' compliance with the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy and thus suggest a necessity to coordinate cross-sectoral policies, planning and investments.

Introduction

Although being home to nearly 20% of the global population, China is only endowed with 7% of the world's freshwater resources, leaving its annual renewable freshwater per capita level at only about one third of the global average. Moreover, China's water resources are geographically unbalanced. According to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, half of China's provinces (15 of them) are water stressed and one third (9) face absolute water scarcity, all of which (with the exception of Shanghai and Henan) are located in northern regions, i.e. Beijing (with an annual renewable freshwater per capita level of 124.01 m3/p), Tianjin (83.56 m3/p), Hebei (182.46 m3/p), Shandong (171.52 m3/p), Ningxia (138.41 m3/p), Shanxi (267.11 m3/p) and Liaoning (408.05 m3/p) (National Bureau of Statistics PRC, 2016). Rapidly developing urbanization, industrialization and population growth have generated severe water stresses in the water-scarce northern provinces (Moore, 2014). Recognizing water as a potential constraint for its future social economic development, the Chinese central government issued its most stringent water management plan, the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy, in 2012. This policy set targets on total water use, industrial and agriculture water use efficiency improvement and water quality improvement at both a national and provincial level for 2015, 2020 and 2030 (State Council of PRC, 2012). While energy production also induces water pollution (Rong & Victor, 2011), this study focuses on energy production's impacts on the total water use caps, which were set at 635, 670 and 700 km3 for 2015, 2020 and 2030, respectively, against the level of 609.5 km3 in 2014.

Although poor in water resources, Northern China is richly endowed with fossil fuel resources. This geographical mismatch aggravates local water scarcity as energy production requires a significant amount of water input for coal mining in preparation for power generation (Spang et al., 2014). 70% of China's coal mines are located in water-scarce regions in the north and 40% of them face severe water shortages (Shan & Ye, 1999). Coal mining consumes a large amount of water to cool down mining equipment, wash tunnels, de-dust and so forth (Pan et al., 2012). Underground mining, which constitutes 95% of China's coal production, induces particularly large amount of water consumption (Meng et al., 2009). In 2008, local water scarcity forced China to abandon several plans to build coal-to-liquid plants (Rong & Victor, 2011). In 2013, a ‘water-for-coal’ plan was added to the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy requiring large-scale coal projects in water scarce regions to be jointly developed with local water authorities. Shang et al. (2016) demonstrated the synergies between a total coal consumption cap and the consequential water conservation. A total coal consumption cap reduces coal outputs and thus reduces the water required for coal mining, washing, conversion and utilization, e.g. cooling water for coal-fired power plants.

Other than coal production, thermoelectric power production also requires substantial water inputs, primarily as a cooling medium to dissipate residual heat from steam turbines (Vassolo & Doll, 2005; Sovacool & Sovacool, 2009; Byers et al., 2016). Around 4.64 km3 water was consumed by power production in China in 2014 (Liao et al., 2016). Qin et al. (2015) identified China's power sector's risks of violating the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy in 2035 if business continued as usual. Liao et al. (2016) pointed out that such risks were mainly concentrated in the north and east. Sadoff et al. (2015) also concluded that Northern China had the highest water risk for power production around the world. In 2004, new coal-fired power plants were required to use air cooling systems and forbidden to take groundwater in water-scarce northern regions (National Development and Reform Commission, 2004).

In addition to coal and electric power, the production processes for other energies (e.g. oil and gas) also require water. Zhang & Anadon (2013) researched the life-cycle water use for the entire energy sector, whilst Lin et al. (2017) quantified the historical water consumption of China's energy production but failed to recognize significant spatial disparities within China. In summary, whilst water and energy have historically been treated and governed as two independent issues, water uses for the energy sector have already raised challenges for resource governance around the world (Byers et al., 2014). This study sets out to realize two novel contributions in this field: (1) to quantify energy production's water consumption on a provincial level in China; and (2) to evaluate the pressure imposed by energy production on provincial compliance with the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy in 2015.

Furthermore, water consumption cannot be directly translated to environmental impacts as it varies according to different water scarcity levels. A large amount of water consumption in a water-abundant region might have a smaller impact on the environment than a relatively small amount in a water-scarce region. Therefore, the impact of the energy sector's water use needs to be quantified, taking regional water scarcity into consideration. In this study, we have introduced a water scarcity index developed by Pfister et al. (2009) to quantify such impacts.

Chinese regions in this study are categorized according to China's regional grids: north, northeast, northwest, east, central and south (Zhu et al., 2015); see Figure 3.

Method and data

A straightforward bottom-up model has been employed in this study to quantify energy production's water consumption in 2015 by multiplying a particular type of energy's output and its corresponding water consumption factor, measured as water consumption per unit of energy produced. This model can be expressed as Equation (1) below: 
formula
(1)
where WE is total water consumption by energy production; and denote Energy Production and the Water Consumption Factor of the energy source i, respectively; n is the number of energy sources included in this study and, as coal production, coke production, oil extraction, oil refining, natural gas production and thermoelectric power production are all included in the study, n = 6. It should be noted that, although coal preparation, bio-energy and hydropower production also induce consumptive water losses, we have not included due to either data limitations (in the case of coal preparation and bio-energy production) or methodological uncertainties (for hydropower) (Bakken et al., 2016). Energy production data are obtained from China's National Bureau of Statistics (2016). Water consumption factor data have been compiled from the existing literature; see Table 1. Apart from thermoelectric power production, whose water efficiency is primarily determined by power plants' water-using cooling technology configurations and varies considerably by region (Liao et al., 2016), we have treated the same energy source's water efficiency as being homogenous in different Chinese provinces.
Table 1.

Water consumption factors in energy production.

Energy production Water consumption factor Source 
Coal 2.5662 m3/t Lin et al. (2017)  
Coke 2.5 m3/t Pan et al. (2012)  
Crude Oil 2.713 m3/t Spang et al. (2014), Lin et al. (2017)  
Oil Refining 1.675 m3/t Spang et al. (2014)  
Natural Gas 153.04 m3/million m3 Spang et al. (2014)  
Thermoelectric Power Province-specific Liao et al. (2016)  
Energy production Water consumption factor Source 
Coal 2.5662 m3/t Lin et al. (2017)  
Coke 2.5 m3/t Pan et al. (2012)  
Crude Oil 2.713 m3/t Spang et al. (2014), Lin et al. (2017)  
Oil Refining 1.675 m3/t Spang et al. (2014)  
Natural Gas 153.04 m3/million m3 Spang et al. (2014)  
Thermoelectric Power Province-specific Liao et al. (2016)  
Moreover, scarce water has been calculated based on the ratio of water use to availability, WTA and the Water Scarcity Index proposed by Pfister et al. (2009), as in Equations (2) and (3): 
formula
(2)
 
formula
(3)
where WTA, WU and WA refer to the Water Use Ratio, to Water Use and Water Availability, respectively; i denotes province I; and j refers to a certain type of water use, i.e. agriculture, industrial or domestic. WSI (Water Scarcity Index), which has a non-linear S-shaped relationship with WTA, can better reflect water consumption's social–environmental impacts at different levels of scarcities. Provincial water use and availability data were obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics (2016).
Last but not least, the targets for industrial water efficiency improvement set by the ‘Three Red Lines’ policies in 2015 have been assessed on a provincial level. Industrial water use data and industrial value-added data are taken from China's National Bureau of Statistics (2016). Shares of energy production's water consumption in Industrial Water Allowances (IWAs) were evaluated accordingly to reflect the pressure imposed by energy production on the ‘Three Red Lines’ water policy compliance in different provinces. IWAs were calculated according to Equation (4) below: 
formula
(4)
where is Industrial Water Allowance in province i; and are Industrial Value Added in 2015 and 2010, respectively; refers to Industrial Water use in 2010 and is the provincial Industrial Water Efficiency Improvement targets (%) set by the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy.

Results

China's unbalanced water resources and energy production

China's regional energy production and water scarcity in 2015 are presented to demonstrate the geographical mismatch. Six types of energy production are included here: coal, coke, crude oil, oil refined products, natural gas and thermoelectric power. For water resources, as well as the regional total annual available water, the Falkenmark Indicator (FI) (i.e. annual available water per capita) and the Water Scarcity Index (Pfister et al., 2009) in the different regions have both also been considered. Low FI indicates a population-driven water shortage, i.e. a large population depending on limited water resources. WSI reflects a region's water scarcity, which includes the effects of both population and water demand per capita versus total water availability.

Figure 1 highlights the striking contrast between energy production and water scarcity in the three northern regions, especially in the north itself. In 2015, the northern regions (from high to low: north, northeast and northwest) produced the largest quantities of energy products; e.g. 82% of coal was produced in these regions. The north alone produced the largest amount of coal (1,173.9 million tons), coke (180.8 million tons), oil refining products (104.6 million m3), thermal electricity (1,011.9 TWh) and the second largest amount of crude oil (66.8 million tons). However, by contrast, over 82% of water resources are found in the southern regions (south, east and central). Water scarcity is most pronounced in the north with an FI at below 180 m3 per capita and a WSI of 0.96, both indicating extreme water scarcity.

Fig. 1.

Regional water scarcity and energy production in China.

Fig. 1.

Regional water scarcity and energy production in China.

It should be noted that certain figures are not presented here due to aggregation; for example, Shanghai and Jiangsu in the east both face severe water scarcity due to a high water use versus water availability ratio.

Water consumption by China's provincial energy production

In 2015, 16.52 km3 of water was consumed by energy production, among which coal production, coke production, oil extraction, oil refining, natural gas production and thermoelectric power production each consumed 9.52, 1.03, 0.58, 0.60, 0.02 and 4.76 km3 of water, respectively. Coal and thermoelectric power production have dominated the energy sector's consumptive water use. Figure 2 illustrates the spatial pattern of water consumption by energy production in China. The top five provinces with the highest water consumption by coal production were Shanxi (2.45 km3), Inner Mongolia (2.34 km3), Shaanxi (1.35 km3), Guizhou (0.44 km3) and Xinjiang (0.40 km3), which is in line with the provincial coal production figures; all except Guizhou are located in the north. With regard to thermoelectric power production's water consumption, the top five provinces were Shandong (0.71 km3), Henan (0.43 km3), Inner Mongolia (0.35 km3), Hebei (0.29 km3) and Jiangsu (0.29 km3), three of which are located in the north.

Fig. 2.

Water consumption by (a) coal production; (b) thermoelectric power production; (c) total energy production; and (d) scarce water consumption by energy production in China in 2015 (Unit: million m3).

Fig. 2.

Water consumption by (a) coal production; (b) thermoelectric power production; (c) total energy production; and (d) scarce water consumption by energy production in China in 2015 (Unit: million m3).

The impact of energy production on water resources is further intensified in the north when local water scarcities are taken into account. Figure 2(d) shows that scarce water consumption is predominantly concentrated in the North China Plain. The five provinces with the largest scarce water consumption by energy production were: Shanxi (1.70 km3), Shandong (1.33 km3), Hebei (0.63 km3), Henan (0.51 km3) and Jiangsu (0.37 km3).

Distribution of water consumption by energy source

Coal production, thermoelectric power production and coke production made up the biggest shares of the energy sector's consumptive water use in 2015, taking 57.7%, 28.8% and 6.2%, respectively.

As shown in Figure 3, of water used for energy production, water consumption for thermoelectric power production was highest in Zhejiang (82%), Beijing (77%), Guangdong (67%), Jiangsu (67%) and Hubei (64%). The provinces with a high percentage of water consumption for thermoelectric power production are mostly located within China's three rapidly expanding megalopolises: Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing), the Yangtze Delta (Zhejiang, Jiangsu) and the Pearl River Delta (Guangdong). Higher levels of urbanization require higher levels of power production. By contrast, coal production played a dominant role in terms of water consumption mostly in traditional coal-producing provinces, i.e. Shanxi (87%), Inner Mongolia (85%), Shaanxi (79%), Guizhou (69%) and Yunnan (61%).

Fig. 3.

Distribution pattern of water consumption by different energy types.

Fig. 3.

Distribution pattern of water consumption by different energy types.

Pressure imposed by energy production on compliance with the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy in water-scarce Chinese provinces

As the second part of the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy sets targets on industrial water efficiency improvement from the baseline in 2010, we assessed the compliance of China's 30 provinces in this regard based on statistical data. Table 2 shows that nine provinces failed to meet their target in 2015. Six out of the top 10 provinces with the highest consumption of scarce water by energy production did not meet their target (i.e. Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Jiangsu and Xinjiang).

Table 2.

China's provincial compliance with the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy.

  2010 industrial water efficiency (CNY/million m32015 industrial water efficiency (CNY/million m32015 industrial water efficiency improvement (%) 2015 ‘Three Red Line’ industrial water efficiency improvement Target (%) Difference between the target and actual efficiency improvement (%) 2015 Three Red Line Industrial Water Allowances (IWAs) Energy production's water consumption (%) 
North Shanxi 2,700.75 3,142.49 −16.36 27 −43.36 859.51 328.93 
Shandong 1,423.01 1,142.38 19.72 25 −5.28 2,765.34 49.64 
Hebei 2,413.64 1,782.01 26.17 27 −0.83 2,224.68 28.93 
Northwest Xinjiang 5,181.85 4,305.45 16.91 25 −8.09 1,065.15 70.27 
Gansu 8,578.36 6,523.82 23.95 30 −6.05 1,067.72 22.57 
Ningxia* 6,406.97 4,491.08 29.90 27 2.90 458.22 75.95 
Central Henan 4,649.87 3,317.89 28.65 35 −6.35 4,782.46 18.08 
Jiangxi 13,378.40 8,904.31 33.44 35 −1.56 6,015.87 3.17 
East Jiangsu 9,951.94 8,536.80 14.22 30 −15.78 19,503.31 2.23 
South Hainan 9,942.63 6,586.39 33.76 35 −1.24 313.99 6.98 
  2010 industrial water efficiency (CNY/million m32015 industrial water efficiency (CNY/million m32015 industrial water efficiency improvement (%) 2015 ‘Three Red Line’ industrial water efficiency improvement Target (%) Difference between the target and actual efficiency improvement (%) 2015 Three Red Line Industrial Water Allowances (IWAs) Energy production's water consumption (%) 
North Shanxi 2,700.75 3,142.49 −16.36 27 −43.36 859.51 328.93 
Shandong 1,423.01 1,142.38 19.72 25 −5.28 2,765.34 49.64 
Hebei 2,413.64 1,782.01 26.17 27 −0.83 2,224.68 28.93 
Northwest Xinjiang 5,181.85 4,305.45 16.91 25 −8.09 1,065.15 70.27 
Gansu 8,578.36 6,523.82 23.95 30 −6.05 1,067.72 22.57 
Ningxia* 6,406.97 4,491.08 29.90 27 2.90 458.22 75.95 
Central Henan 4,649.87 3,317.89 28.65 35 −6.35 4,782.46 18.08 
Jiangxi 13,378.40 8,904.31 33.44 35 −1.56 6,015.87 3.17 
East Jiangsu 9,951.94 8,536.80 14.22 30 −15.78 19,503.31 2.23 
South Hainan 9,942.63 6,586.39 33.76 35 −1.24 313.99 6.98 

Note: Ningxia met the ‘Three Red Lines’ industrial water efficiency improvement target. It is listed here as its energy production occupies a very high percentage (70.27%) of its IWA.

As can be seen from Table 2, energy production consumed large percentages (from 22.57–328.93%) of the provincial IWAs in the northern regions, i.e. the north and northwest. In Shanxi, energy consumption consumed more water than that allowed for all its industries in 2015. More than 70% of the provincial IWA in Xinjiang and Ningxia, nearly half in Shandong, and more than one fifth of IWAs in Hebei and Gansu were consumed by their energy production respectively. Nine provinces did not meet the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy target and five of them are located in the water-scarce northern regions. Moreover, their water consumption by energy production occupied more than 20% of their respective IWAs.

Conclusion and discussion

According to our quantification, among different types of energy productions, coal, thermoelectric power and coke production were the major water consumers in 2015. Their water consumption mostly occurred in the north, despite these regions facing severe water stress. Taking water scarcity into consideration, an even larger proportion of scarce water consumption was concentrated in the North China Plain. Amongst all ten of the provinces in the north and northwest, five did not meet their targets for industrial water efficiency improvement in 2015 set by the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy. In these five provinces, energy production consumed more than 20% of their Industrial Water Allowances (IWAs) set by the above-mentioned policy. In Shanxi, water consumed by energy production was over three times its provincial IWA.

Water consumption is defined as water lost in production processes after being withdrawn from the environment (AQUASTAT, 1998). We did not include water withdrawal into our discussion because water returned to water bodies can be re-used by other sectors and therefore does not deteriorate water scarcity directly. However, large water withdrawals imply the energy sector's higher dependence on water supplies and thus its higher vulnerability to water shortages. The ‘Three Red Lines’ policies do not distinguish between water consumption and water withdrawal explicitly, and corresponding policy implementation is not yet clear. While our study focuses on the energy sector's consumptive water use, since the volume of water withdrawal can be as high as 60 times that of water consumption in the thermoelectric power sector (World Resource Institute, 2015), especially in the east, if it was accounted, water withdrawal would further exacerbate the potential conflicts.

Although bio-energy and hydropower are not included in this study due to data paucity and methodological uncertainties respectively, their development will also lead to immense water losses and therefore should be further examined by future studies. Moreover, coal production's water consumption may be underestimated in this study because, while all coal outputs are required to be washed, coal preparation has not been included in this study because of data limitations.

Besides water consumption, energy production also causes severe water pollution. Coal mining processes pose threats to both surface and ground water environments; coal preparation generates a large amount of wastewater that is heavily polluted and needs proper treatment before being discharged back to the environment; thermoelectric power production with open-loop cooling technologies may cause thermal pollution to its outlet water bodies. As the third part of the ‘Three Red Lines’ water policy set targets on the improvement of water quality, the energy sector also imposes severe pressure on policy compliance in this regard, which could also be quantified if the required date were available.

Despite severe water scarcity, China is still expanding its coal uses (with coal-fueled power plants and other coal-related industries) in the north (Shang et al., 2017). Under the ‘National Mineral Resource Plan 2016–2020’ (Ministry of Land and Resources of PRC, 2016), China plans to build 14 coal production bases by 2020 (Shang et al., 2016), 10 of which are to be located in the northern regions. Our findings highlight the pressure that the energy sector imposes on water resources in the north, especially on the region's compliance with industrial water policies. With the water–energy nexus coming under increasing scrutiny (Biggs et al., 2015), water conservation has been included in China's latest energy development plans, e.g. ‘Action Plan for Energy Development Strategies 2014–2020’ (State Council, 2014). Our findings emphasize that the energy sector's impacts on water resources, especially scarce water resources, need to be better addressed. Various policies and technologies can be adopted to address such challenges. For example, since solar power and wind power use negligible water, transforming the energy sector to these renewable energies, as well as adopting more water-efficient technologies (e.g. air-cooling technologies) are feasible ways to reduce the pressure energy production places on the water sector (Liao et al., 2016). Moreover, the current water use by China's energy sector is concentrated in the dry north because the north is endowed with rich coal reserves. However, a large amount of shale gas is located in China's Sichuan province in the south (Guo et al., 2016), although hydraulic fracturing needs additional water. Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) power production can also significantly lower water consumption for electricity production. Since China's south is endowed with rich water resources, transforming the energy structure from coal to gas could alleviate China's use of scarce water. Future energy development should take the constraints of either water availability or water policies into consideration. However, water availability is projected to increase in the current dry northern China under future climate change (Leng et al., 2015). Wetter conditions may help alleviate such pressures. A more detailed future assessment of the pressure on water resources imposed by energy production – undertaken at a plant level and on a seasonal basis – needs to be carried out.

Acknowledgements

The authors contributed equally to this work.

This work is supported by the China Scholarship Council – Oxford University Scholarship (No. 201406010349) and the article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant (Agreement No. 681228).

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