In this post, our renewable energy specialist Stuart Stones considers the pros and cons of shale gas recovery or fracking, as against those of renewable energy sources.
But what is fracking? To paraphrase Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent for The Guardian; shale gas recovery involves releasing and capturing tiny bubbles of methane trapped inside dense shale rocks by blasting the rocks apart using high pressure water jets.
According to fracking enthusiasts, the extraction of this natural gas will lead to cheaper energy, create new jobs, stimulate local economies and reduce the UK”s reliance upon other fossil fuels such as coal. Dr Nick Riley, head of science policy at the British Geological Survey describes shale gas as “the greenest of fossil fuels” and Michael Marshal in the New Scientist recently wrote about fracking”s potential role in reducing the UK”s carbon emissions in the short term. However, he also pointed out that continued reliance upon gas would potentially lock the UK into a high-carbon future.
On the flip side of the coin, fracking opponents warn of increased seismic activity and potential contamination of the water supply. Further, comments by Michael Liebriech*, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance reveal the huge scale on which shale gas production would have to operate to fill the gap left by the exhaustion of our existing gas supplies:
“In order to replace the decline of U.K. Continental Shelf gas production through 2030 – before starting to replace any coal or nuclear power – you would need 2,400 fracked wells. Assume 10 wells per pad, and that is 240 pads. Each one is an industrial development in the countryside, and this number would extend over an area the size of Lancashire.”
In addition, Liebrich supports concerns raised around the sustainability of shale gas, commenting further:
“In terms of production per well, at its peak, one fracked well can produce enough gas to match the output of 50 onshore or 15 offshore wind turbines. However, the decline curve of a fracked well is so steep that within two years, each well could replace as few as slot machines online four onshore or one offshore turbine (and yes, these figures are adjusted for the efficiency of gas generation and the intermittency of wind).”
Well, so far, so so for shale gas – but what about renewable energy supplies.
The benefits of renewable energy supplies have been talked about for years and sources include wind, solar, tidal and biomass. Often so-called benefits of renewable energy source are actually reasons for halting reliance upon fossil fuels, rather than benefits in their own right – for example, reduced gas emissions, air pollution and reduced risk of acid rain.
However, all is not necessarily rosy in renewables land, and there are some cons. Certainly, at the moment – the costs of creating renewable energy sources remain high. From a consumer perspective, the government”s forecast for average household energy bills shows an average of £1,285 by 2020, which includes £280 added to pay for green policies. This figure is still 7% less than the £1,279 estimated without the policies – which include subsidies for the creation of renewable energy.
In addition, allegations that wind turbines can harm wildlife and damage landscapes continue to dog the industry; and wind farms are often unpopular amongst the communities that overlook them. There are similar environment concerns levied against tidal barrages.
In some ways, the pros and cons of fracking vs renewables cancel each other out – neither appears to be the perfect solution to our longer term energy supply problems. That said, renewable energy sources do have one unassailable benefit that will silence the strongest advocates of fracking, and that is the simple fact that they won”t run out.
*Quoted by The Guardian