What fractivist Emma Thompson does not seem to realize is natural gas and renewables work hand in hand; you do not have to choose between them.
Emma Thompson is truly, deeply and madly wrong about fracking. Here’s why. Firstly, the choice is not about shale, fracking or onshore natural gas instead of renewable energy. It’s quite obviously both and the example of the surging renewable investment in the US shows how natural gas isn’t crowding out green energy. Texas for example has both a lot of wind and a lot of gas. Both get along just fine. Think of Texas’s power grid as one big hybrid.
Wind provided 40 percent of Texas’s electricity for 17 straight hours one windy day in December.
But secondly, we need to think less about light and more about heat in the UK shale debate. Assume green electricity advocates correct and the UK can completely decarbonize by the date of your choosing: 2030? 2050? One could say the prospects for no carbon electricity production at mass scale are more in the realm of thought experiment than reality, but the notion does have some grounding in facts, even far off ones. So let’s subtract every drop of gas used to generate electricity. There’s lots left.
The UK gas story is about power, industry and homes. As we see here, imports are already 53% of UK use, but only 25% of all gas goes into power. This highlights a fundamental confusion between electricity and energy.
Emma Thompson is thus wrong to paint the choice as fracking gas or renewables because she made the first error of confusing electricity and energy. On this, she’s far from alone. Roger Harrabin of the BBC said that Tony Blair made the same mistake in the UK signing up to lower CO2 targets. This from the permanently irascible and almost always right Robert Wilson at Carbon Counter:
One of my pet peeves is the continued inability of many people to distinguish between energy and electricity. Headlines of “100% renewable energy by 2030” abound when they should say “100% renewable electricity.” This is not a trivial mistake, after all the majority of energy use is not in the form of electricity. And quite remarkably confusing energy and electricity may have resulted in Tony Blair signing up to the EU getting 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020. Apparently, he thought he was signing up to 20% renewable electricity, not energy. Whether this actually occurred has been a point of a little debate, but the evidence seems to indicate that it did.
According to the government’s chief scientist at the time, Sir David King, Blair thought he was signing up to 20% renewable electricity. However, some figures such as Blairite commentator John Rentoul have disputed that this occurred. David King’s view however seems to be backed up today by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, who writes:
When the EU set its 2020 target of sourcing 20% of energy from renewables, some leaders thought the deal referred to electricity. (I know because I spoke to Downing Street on the day of the decision).
In fact, it included energy for transport and heating too, so the bar was set much higher than anticipated. Policies create opportunities and entrepreneurs were quick to exploit the potential of wood power, which will soon create more renewable energy in the UK than wind and solar combined.
…If the environmental lobby dropped their obsession with renewable energy this mess may have been avoided.
Returning to the subject of gas today, we see the uncomfortable fact that our gas “addiction” is not forced on anyone. In the 90% of UK homes with central heating, 91% use gas, and most of the rest probably wish there was a mains gas supply near them.
In London for example, there are over 3 million homes that use gas. Gas in new build is on the way out. Better designed homes are much more energy efficient and even though electric heat is far more expensive, the annual standing charges and boiler maintenance mandated by law for rental accommodation mean spending £100 before even a kWh of gas is used.
But for the rest of the capital’s homes, there simply isn’t an alternative. I was at an IPPR energy event this week, part of my outreach to all other energy advocates. (I find a much more grown up attitude among solar and wind professionals compared to the amateurs in the French meaning, who profess to love renewables.) As usual among this demographic, everyone was pushing their preferred solution (wind, solar, efficiency, CCS, small nuclear, tidal), but generally agreed on wanting to keep gas in the ground. This event focussed on local, community energy. That involves retrofitting, or community solar for example, but also included talks by local energy companies. Robin Hood Energy from Nottingham, Bristol Energy and Mongoose Energy all presented. These companies promote the idea, and a great one it is, of lower cost, fairly priced energy from the most sustainable sources.
Except it isn’t. Electricity comes from those sources, which is easy enough to do because the companies have tiny customer bases. On a national basis where wind has varied from 1 to 18 % of total national power supply just in the past week, this is difficult. For small companies, it’s complicated, but doable, and certainly to my mind a laudable example to follow.
But the elephant in the room was gas. Before I could ask the question, Syed Ahmed of Energy for London which proposes a community city wide municipal energy company in London pointed out an uncomfortable fact: Two thirds of a domestic energy bill is gas.
Jan-Willem Bode of Mongoose then admitted that there wasn’t a sustainable alternative, as did Nick Holmes, the director of trading for Bristol Energy. Nick Holmes used to work for Good Energy which has just unveiled a 100% sustainable gas offering by the way. Bio-gas is a great product, but all the waste and sewage in Britain can’t ever produce more than 5 to 10% of gas demand.
Simply put there aren’t any alternatives to gas in heating, at least none in existing homes in urban areas. Air and ground source heat are alternatives, but only if you have the space, time and money to dig up your backyard. Ironically if you want to have maximum overall carbon efficiency at home, Micro gas CHP solutions are the best choice, although they need space and money many might not have.
Micro CHP and solar (for those with roofs) mirror the macro energy system in that they both depend on alternate (i.e. gas) power at times of high demand. Here’s Baxi’s Solar Flow:
Quick and easy to install, the Baxi Solarflo can produce up to 60% of the energy required to heat domestic hot water in summer months and around 55% annually.
Apart from a quick and easy solution (which Emma T thinks banning fracking would also provide) what the alternatives to gas heat provide is simply lowering demand, not deleting it.
So the question then comes down to: If we’re going to use natural gas in heating, already more than that used in electricity, isn’t locally sourced natural gas the better solution in climate and CO2 terms? Gas from Norway has no appreciable difference to domestic UK gas, but their part of the North Sea is declining too. Norway gas still exists but in the future it will be in the Arctic home of Greenpeace’s favorite fund raising tool, Paula the Polar Bear.
Norway, Europe’s biggest gas supplier after Russia, said developing its northernmost reserves in the Arctic hinges on a commitment by the European Union to make the fuel part of its strategy to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Such expansion demands very substantial up-front investments,” the ministers, including Petroleum and Energy Minister Tord Lien, said in the letter. “Companies investing in this capacity will make their choice on a commercial basis, taking into consideration the prospects for gas in Europe.”
Greenpeace is a large organization and many members see gas for what it is, a partial, if imperfect, part of the solution, especially in the source of 25% of world CO2, China’s coal market. But the UK fundraising arm, obsessed with street theatre more than energy solutions, wants to make the choice easy and simple. Unfortunately, that’s also a false choice.
There will still be plenty of gas demand in Europe. Nick Butler pointed out at the Columbia Global Energy Summit in New York yesterday that there is a huge amount of gas in the world and the idea of peak gas has long receded. But at 2.16 here he said something, which is broadly correct. “Fracking is a lost cause in the UK”
He’s not completely right about that. He is certainly no opponent of fracking, and chaired Shale UK in Birmingham two years back. But next month’s event in London, may well be the last major shale conference going. Everyone, me included, (I am presenting by the way as usual, proudly present on the deck of the sinking ship), are tired of bemoaning the lack of public acceptance as ardently as they see so many not doing anything about it.
I’ve been saying for years that well financed campaigns against natural gas are winning the argument. Even when it’s wrong. It’s about feeling, not facts, as Emma and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth show. In short, the industry is dying thanks to a lack of imagination, the very thing antis have in spades. One can’t fight negativity with English apologies. The industry should have had a proud and unrepentant campaign. Instead they were brought down to the level of pygmies.
Natural gas might survive if someone other than the Energy Minister describes it as an environmental no brainer as she recently told the latest in a long line of Parliamentary Groups on Shale. The alternative will be Arctic gas, LNG from as far away as Australia or Russian gas, all with a climate impact of high CO2. So while Emma Thompson and other well-meaning environmentalists, feel we should leave gas in the ground, they end up only increasing the very problem she thinks UK shale would make worse.
Someone should point that out. It won’t be me for much longer I fear, and it won’t be anyone else either. Fracking is almost a lost cause in the UK and there are multiple reasons why. But, it isn’t a lost cause this year. Maybe either Cuadrilla or Third Energy will be allowed to look and then to discover. Maybe a rabbit could well be pulled out of the hat yet. Or, better still, a polar bear.