Is natural gas a water saver in Texas?

Posted by Pete Danko, EarthTechling

Natural gas might be eating coal’s lunch, but natural gas always has a friend in coal. Coal forever makes gas – even when obtained by fracking – look good.

Take the new study out of the University of Texas, announced with the headline, “Natural Gas Saves Water and Reduces Drought Vulnerability, Even When Factoring in Water Lost to Hydraulic Fracturing.”

A Barnett Shale gas drilling rig (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A Barnett Shale gas drilling rig (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Now this is quite an eye-opener if you’ve been following Texas drought news. Just a few months ago, even the conservative editorial page of the Houston Chronicle was wringing its hands over fracking and how it might be exacerbating the effects of a long drought on water supplies:

With hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, igniting a natural gas boom in Texas and elsewhere, we’re only now paying sufficient attention to the massive amounts of water the drilling process requires. With some 30 Texas communities in danger of going dry before the end of the year, it’s becoming more difficult to ignore the fact that the fracking boom, however welcome, comes at a high cost. It is a powerful drain on local water supplies.

But now comes this new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters [PDF]. Focusing on the long, hot, power- and water-stressed year of 2011, the team from the UT Bureau of Economic Geology found natural gas saving the day:

The researchers estimate that in 2011 alone, Texas would have consumed an additional 32 billion gallons of water — enough to supply 870,000 average residents — if all its natural gas-fired power plants were instead coal-fired plants, even after factoring in the additional consumption of water for hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas.

This news is likely to turn the stomachs of fracking foes – not to mention residents in the particular towns where fracking has, as the researchers acknowledge, stressed local water supplies. But if it’s any consolation to greens, the researchers say that one benefit of more natural gas generation could be more wind power, the true drought-buster. Natural gas combution turbine plants “help reduce the state’s water consumption for electricity generation by providing ‘peaking power’ to support expansion of wind energy,” according to UT.

Indeed, in a recent piece, Paul Faeth, director of energy, water and climate at the Institute for Public Research at CNA, a national not-for-profit research and analysis organization, offered his own take on what helped get Texas through 2011:

A key factor in keeping the power flowing during the drought was that Texas had been aggressively developing wind power. Texas generates more power from the wind than any other state. During the summer of 2011, about 10 percent of the electricity Texans needed came from wind, as much as 18 percent on some days. Wind power is a resource that requires no water, unlike a thirsty source like coal. If the contribution from wind had come from Texas coal plants instead, blackouts probably could not have been avoided.

More solar now wouldn’t hurt, too: River Network, in a study published in 2012, put coal’s contribution to the total water footprint of electricity at 7,143 gallons per megawatt-hour; natural gas at 1,512 gallons/MWh; and nuclear at 2,995 gallons/MWh. PV, meanwhile, came in at 2 gallons/MWh. Wind? It was 1 gallon/MWh.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling