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Shale Gas: Silver Bullet for UK Energy?

10/12/2014 13:18 GMT | Updated 08/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Since the recent report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in which the potential for shale gas exploitation in the UK was put under extreme scrutiny, the level of emphasis that has been placed on fracking as some sort of silver bullet for energy issues has been fiercely criticised.

Professor Jim Watson, UKERC research director states: "It's extraordinary that ministers keep making these statements. They clearly want to create a narrative. But we are researchers - we deal in facts, not narratives. And at the moment there is no evidence on how shale gas will develop in the UK... Shale gas has been completely oversold. Where ministers got this rhetoric from I have absolutely no idea. It's very misleading for the public."

Given that several political parties have leaned very heavily on shale as a panacea for the UK's energy woes, this paper must surely come as a wake-up call to those who think we will find our way out of the coming energy shortage by relying on a single, convenient solution.

I was recently interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton on the issue, and here I draw together the discussion of exactly why this isn't and shouldn't be the case.

What are the options for UK energy generation?

We don't really want to have all our eggs in one basket. We've got renewable technologies that harness nature, such as solar and wind, which are great until the wind doesn't blow and the sun isn't shining. The renewable mix and the energy mix on the grid need to cover a broad spectrum.

The other important point here is energy security. We need to be thinking not just about the generation of our own energy from renewable sources but also how we get ourselves moved to a situation where we're less dependent on fuel imports. I know at the moment Centrica is predicting 70% dependency on imported gas by 2020 and that gas of course comes from places like Russia and Qatar, which are not the most stable parts of the world or indeed the locations where we necessarily have the best political relations.

Do we have anything else available other than renewables, gas, coal and nuclear?

What's starting to come to the fore is the use of advanced combustion technologies to replace the old, traditional waste-to-energy technologies. There's a technology called gasification through which you can actually generate electricity and heat by combusting fuels such as waste wood and refuse derived fuel (RDF). This uses the proportion of rubbish that can't be recycled and currently goes to landfill, and turns it into useful, clean energy through clean combustion processes. It hasn't been done much so far in the UK but it's very promising and the Government has started to incentivise these types of technology quite heavily.

What about fracking?

Fracking is something that's had quite an impact in the States; they've discovered large fracking resources and it's led to a cheap energy boom. It's very prominent in the UKIP energy policy, which is based almost entirely around the use of fracking as an alternative to renewables, and inevitably fracking is going to have its place in the UK energy mix but it is not going to be an answer to everything, there is no magic bullet. Fracking in the UK is still very much untried; it's one thing to start fracking out in the States where you've got a lot more space, you're not as densely populated so the impacts are not going to affect the community as much because they're further away. You start fracking in the UK and you are inevitably going to be under somebody's feet.

Why do people so strongly oppose new technologies?

We live in a congested country and unfortunately we have a bit of a habit of being very good at saying what we don't want and not perhaps quite as good at saying what we do want. You may have seen recently the National Grid and OfGem were talking about the lack of energy capacity in the system this Christmas; we are down to somewhere between about 2 and 5 per cent spare capacity. Anyone operating a business on that sort of safety margin probably wants to look twice because that is really tight, and nobody wants to be sat in the dark on Christmas day with a cold turkey in the oven. We need to get our heads around the fact that we do need more generation capacity on the grid, and we need to have all these technologies coming into play.

Planning is an issue, these technologies do need to be placed in the right place and they often face opposition. It is fair to say that some of the early placement of those sorts of pieces of technology was poor and did cause problems. Planning now, however, is pretty rigorous to make sure the impact is properly controlled.

Where will UK energy be in 50 years' time?

In fifty years' time the traditional, dirty fuels like coal will have gone, they'll no longer be part of the mix. We'll have gas still, but it'll be descending not ascending; nuclear will be there because it'll need to make up the hard yards when nature's not playing ball. I would like to see that we still have solar and wind, but what I'd really like to see is a lot more use of clean waste-to-energy technologies based around RDF and waste wood and I'd also like to see the emerging technologies of tidal and marine coming in as well.