We already know that coal-fired power plants are bad for the planet, but that’s usually because we are just thinking about the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide emissions they contribute to our atmosphere. A new Greenpeace report entitled The Great Water Grab sheds light on another terrifying aspect of the coal industry – its astronomical water consumption. The report suggests that the global coal industry uses the same amount of water that would serve one billion people each year. Because coal plants are often situated in water-scarce areas of the world, this adds up to a devastating misuse of Earth’s precious resources.
The Greenpeace report evaluated the water usage of 8,359 existing coal plants as well as 2,668 planned plants around the world. Most of the water consumed by the coal industry is used as a coolant during energy production, but some water is also used when coal is extracted from the ground—usually to keep coal dust from escaping. The new report, published this week, says as many as 44 percent of the coal-fired power plants are located in regions where water supplies are already threatened, pitting people against industry in a fight for survival.
In a head-shaking realization, the report found that one-quarter of the planned power plants are in places struggling with accelerated groundwater depletion, further increasing the risks for sinkholes. Of particular interest to Greenpeace is the coal industry’s growth in China, where more than 200 new plants are planned, despite the nation’s recent commitments to slashing carbon emissions and moving away from fossil fuels. The report claims coal plants in the northern part of the country are contributing to a worsening drought, to the point that even the plants themselves are not able to continue operating at full capacity. Yet, the government has not shut them down.
Although China is still the biggest polluter on the planet, air pollution from coal plants is worse in India, and nations like Poland and South Africa top the charts for coal dependence. On a global scale, environmental experts hope to see access to clean water and conservation of the world’s water supply trump the reliance on filthy fossil fuels that take water from people who need it, contribute to global warming, and pollute the environment with chemicals that damage the ecosystem even further.