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Water-wise Power

Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG), led a study that found using natural gas for electricity generation in Texas saves water and makes the state less vulnerable to drought.

Even though exploration for natural gas requires significant water in Texas, the consumption is easily offset by the overall water efficiencies of generating electricity from natural gas, the study found. The researchers estimated the water saved by shifting a power plant from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times as great as the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas. Natural gas also enhances drought resilience by providing so-called peaking plants to complement wind generation, which doesn’t consume water.

The results of study were published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in December 2013.

“The bottom line is that boosting natural gas production and using more natural gas in power generation makes our electric grid more drought-resilient,” Scanlon said.

The study focused exclusively on Texas, but the authors believe the results should be applicable to other regions of the United States, where water consumption rates for the key technologies evaluated are generally similar.

Ian Duncan, research scientist at the BEG, and Robert Reedy, a BEG research scientist associate, were co-authors.

To study the drought resilience of Texas power plants, Scanlon and her colleagues collected water use data for all 423 of the state’s power plants from the Energy Information Administration and from state agencies such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Water Development Board, as well as other data.

The Jackson School of Geosciences helped fund the research along with the State of Texas Advanced Resource Recovery program, a state-funded program managed by the BEG.