Shale Gas turns out to be Trapped Wind

May 26, 2011

I work for the wind industry, and a very jolly industry is to work for too, I must say. Over the past year I’ve become concerned that the jolliness associated with my industry might take something of a knock thanks to the development of shale gas. What is shale gas, I hear you ask? Well, it’s the gas you get when you drill down to shale beds such as those found around old gas & oil plays, set off a big explosion that fractures the shale, and pump down water and other chemicals to force out the gas that was otherwise trapped in tiny pockets in the rock.

Various people have questioned its environmental credentials, not least pointing out that it has similar lifecycle emissions of CO2 to unabated coal. That hasn’t stopped haters like renowned dandelion Christopher Booker from claiming that this is the end of all wind farms, as it’ll make gas cheap enough to rely on into the next century.

Right now, OfGem is predicting that a gas-focused policy for building new generation plant would raise consumer prices by 52% by 2016, as a consequence of this new dash for gas pushing up demand. Comparatively, an energy mix that includes wind raises prices by only 23%, as the use of wind to displace a third of gas generation lowers demand and hence lowers fuel costs. The argument of the gas-lovers has been that shale gas is a ‘disruptive’ technology that will mitigate this price increase.

This is the sort of magic bullet beloved by the anti-wind lobby, who are grasping for any excuse to not build renewables. Doubtless there was a round of cheering in the hollowed-out dead volcano that houses the headquarters of Nimbyism when the committee for Energy & Climate Change decided to give the go-ahead to shale gas exploration in the UK. At last, they must’ve thought, here’s a technology that will give us energy security without having to build the blasted wind turbines!

There’s a small problem with this, and it lies in the report of the Committee, which estimates the UK’s shale gas reserves as totalling nearly a year-and-a-half’s worth of current UK gas demand.

Check that out.

A year and a half of slightly cheaper gas.

‘Disruptive technology’ my arse.

Now, let’s be fair – there may be other shale gas plays in the old oilfields of the North Sea. There’s a bit of a problem there, which is that extracting gas out at sea is more expensive than on land, mitigating shale gas’s price advantage. There’s another, slightly bigger problem, which doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone yet.

Perhaps you remember that wonderful attempt to keep our old coal and gas plant working in this carbon-conscious age, known as Carbon Capture and Storage. The idea is that you capture emissions from fossil fuel plant at the point of emission and then store them in old oil and gas beds, making gas and coal zero-carbon. However, if at the same time you licence other companies to blow enormous holes in those same oil and gas beds while looking for shale gas, then I’m prepared to bet that the process suddenly becomes pretty bloody carbon intensive, to the point where every Geordie will be able to get a free bubblebath in the North Sea.

It’s certainly true that other countries’ shale gas reserves are more ‘disruptive’ than ours and will have an impact upon imported liquefied natural gas wholesale prices. However, I suspect that the impact of such a relatively limited native supply means that you’ll still want to use the wind when it blows, rather than burning necessarily unabated shale gas.

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