I was planning a whole load of puns to go with this blog especially as my take on this is going to be rather heavy on facts and figures. But actually no, I think it is best that we all suffer the numbers. To my mind to issues surrounding fracking are, in many ways, a lot like those surrounding nuclear power. The public at large want lower bills and energy security at the prices that cheap fossil fuels have always delivered. Unfortunately, the fact that the era of cheap energy bills is now in the past is an inconvenient truth not many are prepared to accept. Witness the clamour for the abandonment of 'eco taxes' on the highly profitable energy companies when a little of the high energy price future we're headed for filtered through to bills last year. Cheap energy is a vote winner and that’s a reality the sustainable energy lobby would do well to remember when suggesting policy.
I do strongly believe we should continue the expansion of renewable energy supply. But for this to happen policy has to be credible. So some dreaded numbers. In 2013 total UK energy consumption was 2400 TWh, including heating and transport. Of which renewables' contribution was 41 TWh or in other words not very much. (Incidentally most of that comes from hydro and land fill gas (1), where there is little scope for expansion). We could discuss improvements in efficiency, behavioural change etc. for the rest of the blog.......but let’s not, as there has been plenty written elsewhere about that topic. What is self-evident from these figures is that non-renewable sources of energy will dominate our fuel usage for some time yet. Therefore, what is most important is that we use the lowest carbon conventional sources i.e. nuclear & gas while ramping up renewable capacity.
So far so conventional; now for the bombshell. Renewables aren't very good - at giving voters what they will vote for, which is reliable and, above all, cheap energy. The problem is, and this might come as a shock to many, is that both wind and solar (the only two with scope for expansion) really don't do what they say on the tin. A 2MW wind turbine will only rarely produce at that level and a 2MW PV array never will (in this country). Averaged throughout the year a good wind turbine will deliver the equivalent of 35% of its rated capacity and PV's less than 9%. Whereas a combined cycle gas turbine can generate 100% of rated capacity >90% of the time.
Keeping the lights on is much less about the theoretical peak output of a generator but rather delivering power when asked. Therefore, if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, renewables need to meet base load consumption which is currently met by gas, coal et al. So how do we make a technology that is guaranteed to never deliver during time of peak load – deliver during peak load (I'm talking about PV's during early evenings in December here)? Well, there is no technology even on the drawing board that can store electricity cheaply and efficiently so that’s out. The current main options, batteries and pumped storage have environmental disadvantages and hydrogen production is fraught with efficiency issues i.e. less than 50%. This means that the reality for renewable energy supply is back-up and lots of it. For example buy a 1 kW PV array and you'll need to buy 1 kW of back up to keep the lights on. And that’s a problem with most renewables that is simply not going to go away.
So guess what the most cost effective and not too dirty back-up for renewables is? Fracked gas. All conventional energy production is a dirty business and as we have to tap ever more unconventional resources that’s just going to get worst. The issue here is I feel is not the environmental damage done by fracking but the fact it’s not done somewhere else. If importing fracked gas knocked 30% off bills do you think those living in the English shires would be complaining? Moreover, if renewables are to continue to develop they will need the support of the electorate which is dependent on keeping costs down and cheap fracked gas for base load production might just be the best way to do this. And with most fracking opportunities in safe Tory seats rather than under the back gardens of floating voters (2), fracking is inevitable.