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02.22.2011 - 06:58PM

Category: Clean Technology

New Wind and Solar Sectors Won't Solve China's Water Scarcity

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By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

Clean alternatives help, but not nearly enough, to loosen energy-water choke point.

Business for wind and solar energy components has been so brisk in Gansu Province - a bone-bleaching sweep of gusty desert and sun-washed mountains in China's northern region - that the New Energy Equipment Manufacturing Industry base, which employs 20,000 people, is a 24/7 operation.

Just two years old, the expansive industrial manufacturing zone - located outside this ancient Silk Road city of 1 million - turns out turbines, blades, towers, controllers, software and dozens of other components for a provincial wind industry already capable of generating more than 5,000 megawatts per year.

This region of dust and industrial innovation - about as far west from Beijing as Montana is from New York - has very quickly become a vital booster stage in China's rocket ride to the top of the global water-sipping clean energy heap. Prompted by a national decision in 2005 to diversify the nation's energy production portfolio, and to do so with the goal of reducing water consumption and climate-changing carbon emissions, Gansu and its desert neighbors are pursuing clean energy development with a ferocity unrivaled now in the world.

Along with northern Gansu, there are six other wind energy zones and eight solar power bases being built in China -- most of them in the desert regions of northern and western China. China also has a burst of seawater-cooled nuclear power plants under construction along its eastern coast.

China's National Energy Administration projects that, over the next decade, generating capacity from wind, solar and nuclear power will more than quadruple, from 53 gigawatts in 2010 to 230 gigawatts in 2020.

Yet China's demand for electricity is rising so quickly the massive investment in new generating technologies will not make nearly as large a dent in energy production - or in freshwater conservation - as many people might expect.

The new wind, solar and seawater-cooled nuclear plants will replace roughly 100 big coal-fired generating stations, which equates to a savings of 3.5 billion cubic meters (nearly one trillion gallons) of water annually, according to academic and government estimates. The clean energy stations also will eliminate around 750 million metric tons of climate-changing emissions annually.

But China's national water use - 591 billion cubic meters in 2010 - is anticipated to grow by 40 billion cubic meters annually by the end of the decade. And the increase in water use, a good portion of which is spurred by new coal production, is occurring in a nation that is steadily getting drier.

Put another way, according to the second chapter of Circle of Blue's Choke Point: China series, the $US 738 billion that government authorities promised last year to spend on non-fossil fuel power generation over the next decade will jump start China's clean energy economic transition. But clean energy development, according to the Circle of Blue report released this week, will not solve a commanding threat to China's modernization -- the confrontation between rising energy demand and declining reserves of fresh water. Over the next decade, and likely well beyond, the water savings from solar, wind and seawater-cooled nuclear power will not be nearly enough to loosen the noose water scarcity is steadily tightening around China's coal production and combustion sector, and its national economy.

"There may be an ultimate day of reckoning approaching," said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow and China specialist at the Peterson Institute in Washington D.C. "But there are a lot of intermediate steps China is prepared to take and already is taking to hold it off as long as possible."

About Keith Schneider

Keith Schneider, who has reported on energy, water, and climate change from four continents, is senior editor for Circle of Blue. Reach him at keith@circleofblue.org.

Read more of the Choke Point: China series at Circle of Blue.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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