Can switching fuels save water? A life cycle quantification of freshwater consumption for Texas coal-and natural gas-fired electricity
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Thermal electricity generation is a major consumer of freshwater for cooling, fuel extraction and air emissions controls, but the life cycle water impacts of different fossil fuel cycles are not well understood. Much of the existing literature relies on decades-old estimates for water intensity, particularly regarding water consumed for fuel extraction. This work uses contemporary data from specific resource basins and power plants in Texas to evaluate water intensity at three major stages of coal and natural gas fuel cycles: fuel extraction, power plant cooling and power plant emissions controls. In particular, the water intensity of fuel extraction is quantified for Texas lignite, conventional natural gas and 11 unconventional natural gas basins in Texas, including major second-order impacts associated with multi-stage hydraulic fracturing. Despite the rise of this water-intensive natural gas extraction method, natural gas extraction appears to consume less freshwater than coal per unit of energy extracted in Texas because of the high water intensity of Texas lignite extraction. This work uses new resource basin and power plant level water intensity data to estimate the potential effects of coal to natural gas fuel switching in Texas’ power sector, a shift under consideration due to potential environmental benefits and very low natural gas prices. Replacing Texas’ coal-fired power plants with natural gas combined cycle plants (NGCCs) would reduce annual freshwater consumption in the state by an estimated 53 billion gallons per year, or 60% of Texas coal power’s water footprint, largely due to the higher efficiency of NGCCs.
CitationE.A. Grubert, F.C. Beach and M.E. Webber, "Can switching fuels save water? A life cycle quantification of freshwater consumption for Texas coal-and natural gas-fired electricity," Environmental Research Letters 7 045801 (11pp) (2012)
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