Switching from coal to natural gas for generating electricity saves water
The Webber Energy Group recently released a study entitled “Can switching fuels save water? A life cycle quantification of freshwater consumption for Texas coal- and natural gas-fired electricity.” The study, led by Michael Webber, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, concludes that Texas could save a significant amount of water by switching from coal to natural gas for power generation.
The report reached its conclusions by calculating the water used to extract both types of fuel, including the water used in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells, as well as electrical power plant cooling and emission controls.
The report claims that by switching Texas’ coal-fired power plants to natural gas-fired combined cycle power plants, Texas could save as much as 60% of the freshwater it uses for electricity generation. Based on 2007 alone, Texas’ annual freshwater consumption could have been reduced by 53 billion gallons. This is equivalent to 10 percent of the water deficit during last year’s drought, half of the annual discharge of the Rio Grande River into the Gulf of Mexico, and enough to provide freshwater to 1 million people for one year.
In comparison to coal-fired plants, the report determines that natural gas plants are more efficient users of water when generating electricity, and they need less water for pollution controls.
These findings are especially important considering that the population of Texas is expected to double by 2060, which means Texas will have to provide significantly more electricity and water services. The Texas Water Development Board predicts that with current patterns, water use for power generation will more than double by 2060, while total water use will only increase by 18%. The research by the Webber Energy Group suggests that much of this water demand growth can be avoided by switching from coal-fired power plants to natural gas-fired power plants.
The Webber Energy Group’s study concludes that the switch to natural gas-fired power plants could have multiple benefits for Texas. It would not only reduce freshwater consumption but it would also reduce air pollution, thus improving air quality. Additionally, Texas’ economy would benefit, considering Texas is a major producer of natural gas but has to import the majority of its coal.