24 March 2018 15:01:14 IST

Time to get into water

Reducing water consumption, especially in thermal power plants, is a huge business opportunity

Let’s face it, the world has a water problem. Three-fourths of the planet’s surface is covered with water — so God has done His job — but we seem to have mucked it up.

I use the words ‘mucked it up’ with careful deliberation. According to a recent report of the International Energy Agency, some 2.1 billion people in the world drink contaminated water. More than half the people in the world do not have proper sanitation; in fact, in some African countries they defecate in polythene bags. A third of the world is affected by water scarcity and, according to the IEA report, 80 per cent of the waste-water discharged is untreated, aggravating water pollution.

But for the youth of the world, especially students, all this is good news, for where there is a problem, there is a solution, and where there is a solution to a problem, there is money. To give an example, there is a deep energy-water nexus. Production and use of energy needs a lot of water. Find a way of using less of water in energy, and you are sitting on a treasure trove. Linking up renewable energy with water — like using windmills and solar panels to pump water for agriculture — is another great idea.

Performance parameters

In future, a lot of corporate work will revolve around water, in some form or the other, so if you have a ‘water background’ you are in business. In this regard, a recent report of the World Resources Institute on what companies can do/are doing about water is particularly relevant.

Companies are beginning to link compensation to a host of environmental performance parameters, including water. General Motors has been cited as an example of this. At present, this compensation is coming in the form of collective performance — say, at a plant level — where the spoils are shared by everybody, but in the future, it is possible to individualise rewards.

The WRI report recommends that companies should get into the habit of generating water data. Today, such data is not available and therefore planners have to strategise in a vacuum. Again, a company as high-profile as Facebook is reported to have done something here, creating publicly available dashboards to monitor real-time water use effectiveness at all its data centres worldwide.

Growth strategies

Companies are also incorporating ‘water’ into their business growth strategies. Here is what the WRI report says about it: “P&G aims to provide 1 billion consumers access to more water-efficient products, Unilever is accelerating product innovation to meet the needs of consumers in water-scarce regions and the Coca Cola Company's Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) is improving access to clean water to support sustainable development in a rapidly expanding consumer market.”

A big business opportunity lies in finding ways of reducing water used in power plants. In India, 40 per cent of the country’s thermal power plants (2.19 lakh MW) are located in high water-stress areas. Often, these plants have to shut down, and 20 largest thermal utilities had to be shut down at least once due to water shortage between 2013 and 2016, costing them $1.4 billion.

Further, almost all of these thermal power plants depend on freshwater for cooling. An estimate of the World Resources Institute says that between 2011 and 2016, freshwater consumption of Indian thermal utilities grew 43 per cent, from 1.5 to 2.1 billion cubic metres a year. (These plants don’t really know, or perhaps even care, exactly how much water they consume. The numbers put out by WRI are good guestimates based on satellite images.)

Business opportunity

A case in point is that of a power plant in Maharashtra, called Parli Thermal Power Station, which has a capacity of 1,380 MW. This coal-fired power plant was completely shut down for 89 days in 2016. Between 2013 and 2016, the plant worked at only 38 per cent of its capacity — during this period, it was shut down entirely for 506 days because of water shortages.

Reducing water consumption in industry, especially in thermal power plants, is a huge business opportunity. It doesn’t call for any major scientific innovation, it only requires careful study of water consumption. Any company that makes this its business, is bound to be a winner.