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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews. 

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The Best Thing About The Death Of Coal

This isn’t another tired story about how kicking the coal habit will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That would be like kicking a dead horse.

Instead, there is a massive new benefit to ditching the dirty: Doing so will free up billions of gallons of water.

If all coal-fired power plants in the U.S. were converted to natural gas, the annual water savings could reach 12,250 billion gallons, or 260 percent of current annual U.S. industrial water use, according to a new study from Duke University.  

Arguably, ditching coal could make up for all the water that fracking is sucking down in the shale patch, so it could take the pressure off that controversial method of extracting oil.

At the same time, coal can largely blame its own demise on this hydraulic fracking boom that has led to abundant natural gas supplies.   

Natural gas has surpassed coal as the top power generation source as of 2015.

In 2018, natural gas accounted for 35.1 percent of the U.S. electricity generation mix, while coal had a 27.4 percent share.

Renewables, especially wind and utility-scale solar, have also gained traction in recent years, grabbing additional share from coal in U.S. electricity generation.

If these trends hold until 2030, the U.S. would save some 483 billion cubic meters of water each year by 2030, which may help take some of the heat off of fracking, where water use has soared over the past decade. Related: Oil Prices Climb As EIA Reports Surprise Inventory Draw

Another Duke University study from last year showed that the amount of water used per well surged by up to 770 percent between 2011 and 2016 in all major U.S. shale gas and oil production regions.

But fracking isn’t the biggest bogeyman when it comes to water waste.

Despite the fact that the amounts of water used in coal mining and fracking are similar, coal-fired plants use much more water to cool than natural gas-fired plants, according to Duke.

“The amount of water used for cooling thermoelectric plants eclipses all its other uses in the electricity sector, including for coal mining, coal washing, ore and gas transportation, drilling and fracking,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

According to EIA data, water withdrawals by U.S. power plants have been declining in recent years, mostly because the share of coal in U.S. electricity generation fell from 39 percent in 2014 to 30 percent in 2017, while the natural gas share increased from 27 percent to 32 percent.

Electricity generation from wind and solar requires almost no water, while combined-cycle natural gas power plants need less water on average than a coal-fired power plant.

In fact, the best argument for fracking yet is this:

“For every megawatt of electricity produced using natural gas instead of coal, the amount of water withdrawn from local rivers and groundwater is reduced by 10,500 gallons, the equivalent of a 100-day water supply for a typical American household,” said Andrew Kondash, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke, who led the study.

The rise of wind and solar power generation could lead to even more significant reductions of water use, according to the study. The water intensity of these renewable energy sources—measured by water use per kilowatt of electricity—is only 1 percent to 2 percent of the water intensity of coal or natural gas. Related: Is Eating Meat Worse Than Burning Oil?

“While most attention has been focused on the climate and air quality benefits of switching from coal, this new study shows that the transition to natural gas – and even more so, to renewable energy sources – has resulted in saving billions of gallons of water,” Vengosh said.

Earlier this year, the EIA estimated that renewables held a larger share than coal in U.S. monthly electricity generation in April 2019, for the first time ever. This historic achievement reflected seasonal factors and longer-term trends such as the decline of coal and the rise of renewables, according to EIA.

If these trends hold, the decline of U.S. coal will be about much more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions: They’ll be the savior of industrial water usage. And the death of coal could end up being the best advertisement that fracking has ever had.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Nicholas Heinrich on October 24 2019 said:
    Good luck with that...

    I highly doubt that people will forget about fracking water consumption just because coal starts using less. After all, coal plants (or nuclear) use water, heat it up, and return it to the environment unaltered except in temperature. They do not use it and turn it into a toxic soup that can contaminate ground and surface water.

    Coal does cause water pollution of course, but mostly near ash-pits and the mines. Both of those are typically in poor areas that are hidden and tucked away in corners where nobody has historically cared. Fracking is more spread out and as a result is not so well hidden, thus it will always garner more negative attention.
  • Allen G on October 24 2019 said:
    It seems hyperbolic but a lot has changed with fracking since 2016. I'd be willing to bet fracking's water use has dropped by 1/3 since the researchers looked at. Things have moved that fast. Don't forget that in 2014 they were all supposed to go belly-up because of the House of Saud's moved at dropping oil prices to impair Iran's power.

    Mr. Heinrich, I love fossil fuels and I love coal. Your assessment of coal and water is little more than ignorant yammering. Coal has all sorts of water pollution risks through out it's lifecycle both when used for steel production and electrical production. I can't blame ya for skipping for the steel part, since this article didn't mention it.

    There are risks of acid mine drainage. Some argue that mountain top removal is bad because of it's negative impact on water quality. And There's not just an issue of fly ash but also coal slurry.

    And that's without taking into account coking coal.
  • Joseph Meyer on October 24 2019 said:
    Is it absolutely necessary for you to use the political pejorative "fracking"? The technical term in the industry is "frac'ing," a contraction of "fracturing."

    Contractions don't add letters, they remove them and replace them with apostrophes. The K was initially added by activists from the anti-petroleum group Earthworks, for its obvious resemblance to the obscenity, and how well it goes with "mother." They crowed about it on Twitter when it became the predominant spelling in Google searches.

    Carpenters would not submit to being called "crapenters." Psychotherapists would not submit to hitting the spacebar before the "r" in their title at the insistence of the Church of Scientology.

    The oil and gas industry should not adopt an illogical spelling for one of their processes dictated to them by their opponents.

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