A future without fracking?

Shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have been hitting the headlines for months, surrounded by debate on controversial extraction methods. But if the future of fracking is uncertain, what are the alternatives for a secure energy future?

If you didn’t know what fracking was a few months ago, chances are that you do now. With test drilling at Balcombe, Sussex declared a “success” by energy company Cuadrilla, shale gas is billed by the UK government as the solution for moving from oil into more renewable sources of energy, as well as lowering energy bills. A considerable tax incentive for companies extracting this gas is planned for next year’s finance bill.

Fracking supporters say that as shale gas burns more cleanly than coal and oil, it’s the perfect ‘transition fuel’ to carry us until renewable energy methods can be sufficiently scaled up. The anti-fracking movement, however, says that it is a shortsighted solution that could end up being worse for the climate than coal, due to dangerous production methods and investment being driven away from renewable energy.

Fracking is a technique that falls within the category of “extreme energy,” a term coined by Michael T Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. The term encompasses methods that exploit unconventional resources in a bid to feed our dependency on fossil fuels, and that are often environmentally risky or damaging. In this case, a mix of water, sand and chemicals such as citric acid, benzene and lead are pumped at high pressure into long horizontal wells drilled into shale rocks deep in the ground. This expands fissures which are then kept open by the sand, allowing the gas to rise to the surface where it is collected.

There are multiple concerns around this process, including the toxicity of the mix of chemicals pumped into the ground, seismic activity due to drilling and possible contamination of groundwater if earth tremors lead to cracks in the walls of wells.

Opposition to fracking is picking up speed both in the UK and globally, with Global Frackdown orchestrating a day in mid-October 2013 where people across the globe united to voice their concerns. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has launched a legal challenge on the premise that companies need permission to drill in the ground underneath people’s land. The campaign website offers people a way to check if their home is in the 64% of the country considered for possible fracking.

There is also an upsurge of community opposition across the UK, with locals and activists camping outside the Balcombe test site for weeks this summer, voicing their discontent and attempting to block access for equipment. While their protest did not prevent test drilling going ahead, it certainly sparked interest in the subject and increased public awareness of the debate.

Speaking at the protest site in August, John Sinha from the Campaign against Climate Change said: “It’s essential that we have these protests and direct action to actually raise the issue, otherwise it’s just not going to get discussed. Mainstream media give the impression that there are no alternatives.”

There are many other local communities in the UK affected by this issue and anti-fracking groups are springing up across the country. Residents Action on Fylde Fracking in Lancashire is particularly active, sharing knowledge and information with other community groups in places such as Yorkshire and Nottingham to help them prepare for campaigning. East Kent Against Fracking has also had two successes at the end of November, with Deal Council opposing fracking and Dover Council voting no to the method, pending further consultation.

“By reducing our demand for energy through measures such as strict building standards and changing our transport infrastructure, we can power the UK purely on wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal and other types of renewable energy”

But exactly how much shale gas is expected to be hiding in the crevices of UK ground? In 2010 the British Geological Survey (BGS) gave an indication that the potential could be around 150 billion cubic metres (bcm). In 2013 they estimated the potential of the Bowland Shale layer in Lancashire to contain 23-65,000 bcm. To put these figures into context, the annual UK gas consumption is currently 77 bcm and the remaining recoverable conventional gas resources are 1,466 bcm.

However, John Broderick, knowledge transfer fellow at Tyndall Manchester, the UK’s leading interdisciplinary climate change research centre, said: “Making any predictions about the amount of shale gas potentially recoverable is guesswork. It depends on both above-ground and below-ground factors such as the technology available and permitted by the regulatory framework, financing and economics, industrial logistics, public acceptance and, of course, fundamental geology.”

The long term UK carbon target set by the Climate Change Act aims to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050, down from 1990 levels. Legally binding five-yearly carbon budgets have been put in place to chart progress lasting until 2027. These targets are calculated to avoid more than a 2˚C increase in global temperature.

According to Broderick, by the time UK shale gas would hit the market, domestic consumption of gas of any form would have had to decrease sharply. In the absence of a global cap on emissions, adding any further fossil fuels into the energy mix would decrease prices and therefore increase consumption, a natural function of the structure of today’s economic system.

But what are the alternatives? A report by Zero Carbon Britain, an initiative from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), shows that by reducing our demand for energy through measures such as strict building standards and changing our transport infrastructure, we can power the UK purely on wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal and other types of renewable energy.

Carbon neutral synthetic liquid fuel and gas would be a crucial part of the equation as they have the same chemical make-up as their fossil fuel counterparts, and can be created through a conversion process that combines hydrogen with sustainably grown biomass. This is carbon neutral, as the CO2 released from burning the fuel would be soaked up as the biomass grows.

These findings are supported by innovative work conducted by Mark Z Jacobson, atmospheric scientist at Stanford University and Mark A Delucchi, specialist in economic and environmental planning at University of California, Davis.

There are certainly considerable challenges to overcome, but the model demonstrates exactly how the world could run on wind, water and solar (WWS).

WWS would be used to produce electricity and hydrogen. At three times the efficiency of hydrogen, electricity would be used when possible. Hydrogen fuel cells would solve issues of long distance transport where one electrical charge simply wouldn’t be sufficient. Hydrogen burns completely clean, emitting only water vapour.

Jacobson and Delucchi suggest that vehicles, trains and boats would run on electricity and hydrogen fuel cells, and planes would fly fuelled with liquid hydrogen (already used to power space shuttles). The temperature in homes would be regulated by electricity, hot water supplied by solar and industry would run on electricity and hydrogen combined.

The global energy mix required for this would be 50% wind, 40% solar, 4% geothermal, 4% hydroelectric and 2% wave and tidal power.

The ‘brains’ required to cope with peaks and troughs in supply and demand, as well as the intermittent nature of most renewable energy, is a so-called super grid. This powerful infrastructure would be run by software capable of directing available supplies to wherever energy is needed, even to storage facilities, thereby avoiding any waste of surplus energy. Non-variable sources of energy such as hydroelectric power would be used to back up the whole system.

“The technology and infrastructure required for this model to become reality is relatively straightforward,” said Jacobson. “The hardest nut to crack is mustering the political will to fully commit to the policy changes and financial incentives needed to make this work globally.”

Certainly, the economic benefits pose the best way to win political favour. There is huge potential for job creation in the climate sector and the boost this can give the economy is considerable. For example, a report published by Campaign against Climate Change, titled One Million Jobs, calls for the creation of a National Climate Service on par with the NHS. This service could potentially employ a million workers for ten years for less than is given to the banks in one year, helping unemployed people get back in work and marking a monumental shift forward in the climate sector.

Another issue of particular relevance to politicians is air pollution, a major cause of mortality causing around three million deaths each year. This would be dramatically reduced through a transition to renewable energies, and eventually virtually eradicated, creating an estimated saving on medical costs the equivalent of up to 7% of global GDP.

Knowing that influencing politicians and policy begins at a local level, Jacobson and Delucchi have spent the last few years developing intricate studies for New York State and California. Currently, the process of computer modeling each region is extremely labour-intensive and efforts are underway to automate parts of it in order to speed things up. For years Jacobson and Delucchi, along with a team of committed researchers, have been carrying out these studies on a voluntary basis next to their day jobs. Now, happily, Jacobson feels a momentum is building: “There is a certain bandwagon effect starting to happen, a sense that no one wants to be left behind.”

So for those opposed to fracking, there is reason for cautious optimism. It is entirely possible to wean the world off fossil fuels, argue the proponents of renewable energy, but it’s up to us as citizens to use the methods available to us to hold our elected politicians accountable for their actions and to steer them towards a clean energy future.