Energy Minister Michael Fallon’s recent comments about the impact of fracking on communities in the leafy Home Counties (“We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!”) has for many sharpened the debate about the necessity of shale gas extraction.
The process of fracking to access buried unconventional shale gas reserves has got people excited about its potential as a source of energy. The rapid growth of the shale gas industry in the US has caused gas prices to plummet, cut carbon emissions and turned the country into a net energy exporter.
In other words shale gas has, at least for now, achieved the energy holy grail: minimised costs, improved energy security and reduced carbon emissions.
Chancellor George Osborne has championed the idea of pulling off the same stunt in the UK, vowing to give generous tax breaks for shale gas exploration in his 2013 budget.
But fracking remains an emotive subject and positions become quickly polarised, as illustrated by the recent standoff between protesters and energy company Cuadrilla in Balcombe, Sussex. Environmental concerns are still raised regarding the chemicals used in the fracturing process, the generation of seismic activity, and the risk of contaminating ground water.
The “not in my back yard” (nimby) opposition of local communities draws some interesting parallels to those faced by the onshore wind industry in recent years. The result has been to shift government favour towards offshore wind, despite the higher cost.
Similarly, the shale gas industry might be pushed offshore. Many of the factors that made shale gas such a rapid success in the US don’t apply in Britain. Less favourable land ownership laws, a stronger collective European environmental conscious, different geology, and a much higher population density all make exploiting shale gas in Europe much more economically and practically challenging.
Britain faces a looming energy gap, where spare electricity generation capacity falls from 14% to 4%. Energy regulator Ofgem warns of an increased likelihood of blackouts. This is due to the shutdown of dirty fossil fuel power stations under the European Large Combustion Plant Directive, and also the decommissioning of many of Britain’s ageing nuclear power plants.
While renewables are growing quickly, they are not enough to meet the energy shortfall alone, leaving the government facing the lights going out. Dwindling North Sea conventional gas reserves leave the government exposed to the international gas market’s price volatility unless new shale gas sources are extracted closer to home.
Perhaps ironically, while a fossil fuel, shale gas may have an important role to play in the UK’s de-carbonisation targets and for the potential success of renewable energy.
After years of social, political and economic wresting between carbon capture and storage, nuclear and renewable electricity generation, the government has thrown in its lot with onshore and offshore wind energy backed by gas generation. The current government target is to meet 30% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020, driven primarily by a growth in wind generation capacity.
Wind turbines, particularly the smoothed output from wind farms that are geographically spread out, are able to provide reliable energy over a timescale of a year. But over timescales of minutes, hours and days, their variability is problematic for continually balancing electricity supply and demand.
Gas generation is a particularly suitable partner technology to wind generation, as it is able to ramp up and down its output to react to changes in wind generation output in minutes - much faster than coal fired generation.
Shale gas deposits therefore have an important supporting role to play in the UK electricity sector by keeping costs down, supporting de-carbonisation and increasing energy security. Drilling for shale gas will have to overcome nimby opposition and stringent environmental impact assessments, but ultimately it is too important to meeting Britain’s renewable targets to leave underground.