In recent years, state officials have been making the transition from coal-fired power plants to natural gas facilities, hence the increase in fracking operations. It has been predicted by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas that 35 percent of new power generation in the region will come from natural gas combustion turbine plants by 2029, with the intention being to drastically scale back the contribution of coal-fired operations.
This would also fit in with an increase in the number of renewable energy sources being introduced in the region, although there is one important caveat to note. Wind farms and solar panels don't need water for cooling, but they are not always the most efficient forms of generating electricity during times of peak demand. This has meant that utility companies and power producers have had to look at ways to combine the resources available with a demonstrated need to limit the level of water being used by traditional means of production - a scenario that often leaves them between a rock and a hard place.
However, with water consumption by the energy industry a continued point of discussion in not only Texas but the rest of the United States, the engineering research conducted by the authors of the report has produced some intriguing results. Over a period of months, water use data from each of the 423 power plants in the state was analyzed, along with data from the federal Energy Information Agency and identified state agencies.
Fracking, by its very nature, requires the high pressure pumping of a water-based chemical solution into the ground, with opponents of the process claiming that it wastes water as a result. Natural gas operations in Texas have come in for criticism for the their reliance on the technique, especially when considering that the area is often prone to drought. However, fracking actually accounts for less than 1 percent of all water consumed in Texas, according to the University of Texas, a statistic that was pivotal to the research undertaken.
What the study showed was that fracking can actually save billions of gallons of water that would be used by coal-fired plants as part of their daily cycle of energy generation. The research team estimated that in 2011 alone, Texas would have consumed 32 billion gallons more water if all natural gas plants were coal-fired, with the amount of water saved by transitioning from coal to gas in the region of 25 to 50 times greater than the total used in the fracking process itself.
"The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing, by boosting natural gas production and moving the state from water-intensive coal technologies, makes our electric power system more drought resilient," said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the university's Bureau of Economic Geology, who led the study.Playing a role
The results of the study come at a time when fracking remains a national debate, with the extraction process dividing opinion in a variety of communities. In terms of how it affects the U.S economy, however, it appears that the boom in domestic energy production has actually contributed to a reduction in the country's trade deficit and, according to The Washington Post, hydraulic fracturing has played a significant role.
Recently released figures by the Commerce Department show that the deficit is at its lowest level for four years, with the balance of trade swinging back toward American exports as opposed to imports. Naturally, it would be churlish to assume that this can be contributed solely to fracking, but shale gas production is potentially one reason why the economic health of the country continues to improve.
"There has been a tendency to throw our hands up and say, "Everything is awful," and to assume that the world has learned nothing from the crisis of 2008," noted Neil Irwin, the economics editor of Wonkblog and a Post columnist. "But the reality is that, thanks in large part to the U.S. energy boom, one key set of imbalances behind the crisis is rapidly disappearing."