Shale gas

Hello everyone, sorry its been a while since my last post. I’m sure my readers have been just bored senseless waiting for more news from Planet Renewable-both of you!

Anyway, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk of fracking, shale gas and whether this will result in the abortion of the budding renewable energy industry. So as usual, I’m going to throw in my two pennies worth for you to consider.

Energy extracted from shale is no new thing. In fact, shale was the first commercial source of oil and it was huge business up until about 1900. Little historical fact-did you know that the first commercial oil refinery was not in the Middle East or in America but in…Bathgate, West Lothian. The large shale and coal deposits there meant it was the perfect place for James ‘Paraffin’ Young’s famous plant (the fact it was his home town also probably helped). In fact, if you drive out of Edinburgh on the M9 and look to your left you will see what like two red man made hills. These are shale bings-the dumping ground for used shale, now used largely as a semi-legal motorbike rally park.

The commercial success of the process of fracking to uncover large shale reserves in America has led many to think that this is the answer to the UK’s energy prayers. We have under our feet almost as much shale as we do coal. It is estimated by some that if we can use the American techniques to extract gas from this shale then we have enough energy for our needs for around 80 years. This, say some, spells the end for renewable energy before it has even got going. Why would we want to rely on an unpredictable and expensive energy resource when we’ve got loads of lovely shale just waiting to be set alight to keep our cars running and homes cosy?

There are several reasons. First of all, even if shale is as reliable a producer of gas as its supporters suggest, there is still only a finite amount of it. In the grand scheme of things, 80 years is not a long time. It will probably see me into the next world, but not by that much. What do we think will happen in 80 year’s time? Will the world’s energy use have magically disappeared and we can all happily live in caves with no warmth or light? I don’t think so. If shale gas can be used safely and cleanly all the better but let’s not kid ourselves that this solves the long-term problem with energy supply. The only energy sources which can be constantly renewed are those supplied by nature-wind, wave, tidal, solar and geothermal. These technologies still require loads more investment and research and it would just be idiotic to put all that on the backburner because we may have a temporary stopgap.

Secondly, there are big question marks over the technique in extracting this deep lying shale. The process of fracking involves high intensity sand and water blasting. This has potentially harmful effects on the structural integrity of the very ground we walk on i.e. causing earthquakes. Also, the technique could well pollute the water table, leaving us dirty drinking water. As with renewable energy though, there is still plenty of work to be done to come up with better systems. I am sure as the industry matures that more efficient techniques will be invented.

Thirdly, this does not solve the climate issues. Climate change is potentially the key issue that the world is facing at the moment. Burning shale may not be as dirty as burning coal, but it is still releasing carbon dioxide into the environment and this must be reduced.

Shale gas? There are issues with it, but I think it could well have a role to play. Don’t kid/concern (delete as appropriate) yourself that this is the end for renewable energy though. If we are silly, it could mean a temporary reprieve. If we have any sense, we keep going. One thing is for sure: long-term, we will need it.