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Fracking May Make Texas Power Supply Drought Resistant

A new University of Texas-Austin study shows that producing electricity from natural gas saves much more water than producing power from coal, even accounting for water lost in fracking for shale gas.

In other words, fracking for natural gas used to produce electricity may make Texas more drought-resistant as the state shifts from coal power generation to natural gas power generation.

A combined-cycle natural gas power plant.
Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

The study, funded by the state of Texas, looks at how Texas’ devastating 2011 drought affected electricity demand and power plant water consumption as compared to 2010. Texas is unique among states because its power grid is entirely isolated from the rest of the country. It also produces more electricity than any other state, about half of which is produced using natural gas, according to the study.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process used to extract natural gas from shale, often using millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand per fracking operation to crack the shale deep underground and release trapped crude oil and natural gas into wells on the surface. The process is controversial because of the quantity of water fracking consumes in drought-stricken areas, fears about its impacts to underground water supplies and the possibility that leaks in the natural gas production and distribution systems could emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas fuelling climate change.

Electricity produced using natural gas combustion turbines and natural gas combined-cycle generators requires roughly 30 percent of the water needed for coal power plants. The study estimates that the amount of water saved by shifting a power plant from coal to natural gas is up to 50 times the amount of water lost in fracking to extract the natural gas from underground shale formations.

The study’s authors estimate that for every gallon of water used to frack for natural gas, Texas saved 33 gallons of water by using that gas for electricity generation rather than producing the same amount of power with coal. During the 2011 drought, if Texas’ natural gas-fired power plants had generated electricity with coal, the state would have consumed an additional 32 billion gallons of water, or enough to supply about 870,000 people with water, accounting for water used for fracking, according to the study.

The study projects that statewide water demand for electricity generation will fall continuously through 2030 as Texas continues using more renewables and natural gas for power generation.

The reason natural gas plants use less water and are therefore more resistant to drought is their flexibility and efficiency, said study lead author Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist in the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas-Austin.

Natural gas combined-cycle power plants use a steam turbine, which requires water to operate, in addition to two combustion turbines, which need no water for cooling. Widespread use of these natural gas plants, which use about one-third less water than plants that use only steam turbines, would reduce statewide water consumption while allowing the plants flexibility to complement wind power generated elsewhere in Texas, Scanlon said.

Natural gas power plants are considered “flexible” because they can provide both baseload electricity — the electricity needed for normal electricity demand, traditionally provided by coal plants — and they can provide “peaking” power for when the demand for electricity is at its highest. Renewables such as wind are major electricity generators in Texas, making the flexibility of natural gas plants useful because they can be fired up quickly to account for power production fluctuations from wind farms, where power is produced as erratically as the wind blows.

The flexibility of natural gas plants is critical in a drought, Scanlon said.

“If you look at drought vulnerability just from the water issues, which we did for this study, in each of the cases we found that the power plants had coping strategies,” she said. “They could switch cooling systems, they could switch generators.”

Vincent Tidwell, a Sandia National Laboratories hydrologist who has analyzed drought’s impacts on electricity production in Texas, said the study is important because it raises public awareness about the water needs of various kinds of electric power production technologies.

“When you talk about drought resilience, you’ve got to be careful about the way you think about it,” he said. “Yes, even when you bring in issues of the hydraulic fracturing, natural gas from the big picture is a much better choice from a water consumption standpoint than a traditional coal plant or traditional nuclear plant.”

But natural gas power plants still use water, and in many cases, new natural gas wells could create a new demand for water in a local area where no previous demand for water existed.

For example, he said, a new natural gas-fired power plant could replace a coal plant in an area where water supplies are adequate. But the natural gas for the new plant could come from an oil and gas field far away in a dry area where no previous demand for water existed.

That could create drought vulnerability in a local area even though natural gas power may consume less water than coal statewide, he said.

“We’re still seeing water development for fracking,” Tidwell said. “It’s still a very local issue.”

Scanlon’s study, “Drought and the Water-Energy Nexus in Texas,” was published this week in the journal, Environmental Research Letters.

Related Content 
Global Warming Amplifying Texas Drought, Wildfires, Scientists Say 
Texas Wildfires Continue to Rage Amidst Historic Drought Conditions 
Fracking in Spotlight in Texas as Ample Oil, No Water 
Americans Uninformed About Fracking Says New Study 
Fracking Boom Leading to Fracking Bust: Scientists

Comments

By Sue (NY)
on December 20th, 2013

I Hope this water vulnerability assessment is not being used as an excuse to frack new gas wells.
There is absolutely NO sane reason to turn millions of gallons of fresh, clean water (per well!)  into hazardous wastewater contaminated by radioactive material (interred underground and released by the fracturing) and chemicals so dangerous the gas industry refuses to let the complete list be known.  There is no means to reliably contain these enormous volumes of radioactive wastewater..

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the same fractures (we’re talking two miles out in every direction from the central vertical well) created to release the gas are also pathways allowing the released radioactive material, methane and life-threatening chemicals to mix with groundwater and contaminate drinking water supplies,

It is lunacy to sacrifice drinking water to generate electricity.  There are safe methods to provide for our energy needs, but a person can only live for three days, max, without water - clean water we have a limited supply of.

Regarding the quote from the article…..
“When you talk about drought resilience, you’ve got to be careful about the way you think about it,” he said. “Yes, even when you bring in issues of the hydraulic fracturing, natural gas from the big picture is a much better choice from a water consumption standpoint than a traditional coal plant or traditional nuclear plant.”

Comparing fracking to coal to nuclear power, you may as well compare lethal injection to hanging to the guillotine - the bottomline is the same in any case.  We have no need for, and in fact we cannot live with, further fossil fuel expansion.

P.S.  Then there is the matter of fracking and earthquakes - see below,,,,,

http://rt.com/usa/texas-fracking-earthquakes-azle-445/    (November, 2013)

Between 1970 and 2007, the area around the Texas town of Azle (pop. 10,000) experienced just two earthquakes. The peace and quiet began to change, however, at the start of 2008, when 74 minor quakes were reported in the region.

Cliff Frolich, earthquake researcher at the University of Texas, said waste water injection wells from fracking could be responsible for the recent spate of earthquake activity.

“I’d say it certainly looks very possible that the earthquakes are related to injection wells,” he said in an interview with KHOU television.

Reply to this comment

By Michael Berndtson (Berwyn, IL)
on December 20th, 2013

What a doggone minute.

This study is based on a hypothetical Texas electricity generation that would never happen. You all know the purpose of this study was to sell natural gas as a climate change fighter, no? UT Austin is the king of academic fracking by public relations right now.

Here’s how Texas has been generating electricity for the past 10 years:

Texas elec generation by source 2002: Coal, 37%, natural gas, 52%, Nuke, 9%, Renew (not hydro), 1%, other, 1%

Texas electricity generation by source 2012: coal, 32%, natural gas, 50%, nuke, 9%, renew (not hydro) 8%


http://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/browser/

The distribution of generating fuel hasn’t change much - except wind and solar has increased eight fold.

So here’s what’s wrong. Texas has its own problems that aren’t similar to other geographical areas so this study is not only bad, but not universal. Texas would never use coal over gas, since they have more gas than they know what to do with. From onshore and offshore sources as well as conventional and unconventional methods of extraction. I’m embarrassed for Texas education.

Reply to this comment

By john harkness
on December 20th, 2013

I have to join others in wondering why this ‘study’ is being presented here. It is quite obviously just pro-fracking spin, resting as it does on a false choice.

Continued rapid conversion to wind and solar would not involve _any_ use of water.

I would expect this kind of piece in the OpEd page of the WSJ, not at Climate Central.

Reply to this comment

By Anthony Alfidi (San Francisco, CA 94132)
on December 25th, 2013

The water-energy nexus demands innovation.  Entrepreneurs can make a huge difference with green infrastructure disruption.  http://alfidicapitalblog.blogspot.com/2013/12/water-energy-nexus-can-drive.html

Reply to this comment

By Tristan Ludlow (Austin/Texas/78749)
on January 31st, 2014

I think that fracking is not safe and harmful to the environment.
So I think it is bad.

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