Is North America Unintentionally Heading Towards A Sustainable Future In The Power Market?
The hype surrounding hydraulic fracturing and the high water consumption of water and wastewater produced in the oil and gas industry makes the power industry secondary.
By Frost & Sullivan Energy and Environment Industry Analyst Ankur Jajoo
The North American unconventional shale market has certainly been in the media for its good and bad features the last few years. Not only oil and gas, but all industrial manufacturing processes are looking closely to save operating costs, focusing mostly on reducing water consumption. For the supply of oil and natural gas, the driving environmental challenges associated with freshwater consumption, contaminated water disposal, and drinking water contamination, has taken the energy and power industry by surprise. Though this is not the first instance the oil and gas industry is facing challenges, the limelight has shifted significantly from the power generation industry, which in fact consumes far more water in power plants than in oil and gas operations.
Coal power plants require large volumes of water for cooling purposes and steam generation to power the turbines to generate electricity. In addition to the large consumption of water, coal power plants produce significant volumes of wastewater and air pollution contaminants that require control. The table below shows the volume of water used per hour in different power plants according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
(minimal air pollution
(once through cooling and
(once through cooling)
(combined cycle and wet cooling towers)
(once through cooling)
(wet cooling towers)
1014 gallons/MWh 470 gallons/MWh 1120 gallons/MWh
Data statistics: Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) November 2012
The table clearly shows natural gas uses less than half the amount of water consumed in coal and nuclear powered plants. There is a significant reason for this: natural gas can be burnt in gas turbines directly, which are air cooled rather than through water cooling. The waste heat is used to boil the water in combined cycle plants, which uses far less water for cooling.
Why is this so important?
Given the amount of energy produced per day by each power plant, this is a significant amount of water used by coal and nuclear power plants. The North America region recently began initiating the transition from coal power plants to natural gas power. With the abundant supply already available and strong future supplies yet to be drilled, this is a great opportunity for the North America region to further drive the need for sustainability by significantly reducing water consumption. This in particular helps ease problems in drought stricken states where water is quickly becoming a premium, and soon, water prices will likely increase to maintain a sustainable level. This is a game changer for the power generation industry.
Of course, using natural gas is by no means completely perfect, as it still requires the extraction through hydraulic fracturing, which consumes large volumes of water and produces carbon dioxide emissions when burnt. However, the benefits using natural gas at this stage far outweigh using coal or nuclear as a fuel in power plants.
However, the United States and Canada are on the right track to reduce water usage in the most intensive industry. The sooner the transition becomes mainstream, the better. This has a multiplying effect on regions across the world that are constructing new power plants, and are exploring unconventional gas reserves. A strong source of freshwater is very critical when looking at the location of a plant. However, this may not bode well for the original water and wastewater treatment equipment manufacturers, whom cater to the power generation industry in North America.
This is a step in the right direction to lower freshwater consumption in the most water intensive industry in North America is to use a more sustainable resource that is abundant in supply and produces cleaner air emissions.
Is everyone a winner?
From an economic perspective, it is good for plants to lower operating cost savings in the long term, and from a resource and environmental perspective it a huge step in the right direction. Traditionally, North America has set the benchmark for future opportunities with new technologies and partnerships with foreign companies. The likelihood of further natural gas usage in power plants and water management in fracking operations; is already affecting countries such as China for exploration and production. By using an abundant resource which is cleaner than coal, consumes less water in power plants and lower overall maintenance costs of facilities through fewer air pollution control requirements and water treatment systems, the industry is addressing multiple challenges which is likely to impact the long term global market.
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SOURCE: Frost & Sullivan