Shifting the Energy Paradigm

” if we don’t understand the problems we are trying to solve (whatever they may be) then any solution we propose will be ill-considered.”

This blog is from a friend of 6heads who prefers to remain anonymous.

Shifting the Energy Paradigm

Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’, argued that during revolutions in science, the discovery of anomalies led to a whole new paradigm that changed the rules of the game. Donella Meadows, an influential systems thinker added that such changes can be achieved if you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the current paradigm, and speak louder and with assurance from the new one.

I would like to apply this theory to the debate around Shale Gas exploitation[1]. While this topic may seem worlds away from the inspiring blogs my fellow heads have posted on innovation and sustainability, it is an important discussion to have, because if we don’t understand the problems we are trying to solve (whatever they may be) then any solution we propose will be ill-considered.

Interest in shale gas extraction has soared in recent years, because of breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technologies in the USA along with the increases in the price of oil. The US is leading the way, with production increasing by 48% between 2006 and 2010. As such, many European member states are keen to follow this success.

European gas production is declining rapidly and is expected to decline by a further 30% or more by 2035, at the same time the demand for gas in Europe is projected to increase until 2035.  These trends would require imports of natural gas in the order of 100 billion m3 per year but there is no guarantee that these can be realised. The resources of shale gas in Europe are not large enough to influence these trends. Poland and France have amongst the largest shale gas supplies in Europe and studies show that the UK is not far behind them.

So, what is the problem?

Shale gas was originally welcomed as a lower carbon alternative to coal, however, after it presented itself as a threat to renewable energy it has been heavily criticised by the green movement. Reasons for this include the use of dangerous chemicals in the fracking process, potential contamination of underground aquifers, fugitive methane emissions from the exploitation process, waste water contaminating steams and land, extensive water usage, earthquakes and damage to amenity and landscape value.

The IEA estimates that 4-5 million gallons of water are needed to fracture one well,  and because shales tend to be deeper in Europe than in countries like the US, less water can flow back and be recycled than the rate found in North America.  This is a cause for concern for countries like Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Poland, who have the lowest renewable water resources per capita in Europe and also experience water stress due to excessive withdrawal of their resources. High population densities and industrial or agricultural structures of the economy are amongst the factors that contribute to this water stress.

Possible alternatives could lie with renewable energy sources. Recent studies predict that typical production in the Texas Barnett Shales in the USA, is 11 Mio M3 per well in the first year of production, but only 80,000 M3 in its 9th year and 40,000 M3 in its 10th year. Contrastingly, solar power plants generate electricity for more than 20 years and at the end of its life time a solar plant can be substituted by a new one without additional land consumption. Furthurmore, a solar plant occupying 10,000m2 of land could generate 400,000 kWh of electricity every year. Solar may not be an option in many parts of the EU, but this example illustrates the type of long term solutions we should be focusing on. Especially because resources for shale gas in Europe are not large enough to influence gas demand trends.

How are countries with abundant supplies reacting?

The Polish government is extremely positive about the exploitation of potential supplies. Currently, it relies on Russia for two thirds of its gas consumption and it has a predominantly coal fired power sector. As such, shale gas could be important in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring security of energy supplies and reducing energy costs. In 2011, over 100 shale gas exploration authorisations had been granted in Poland and over 25 applications for an exploration authorisation are ongoing.

France has taken a far more risk adverse strategy. The French administration had granted shale gas exploration permits to various companies; however concerns over water management triggered public opposition against drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities. Consequently a moratorium was put in place and the ‘Prohibition Act’ was enacted on all shale gas activities, until studies to examine the social, environmental and economic impacts have been completed. All former authorisations have been abrogated.

Cuadrilla Resources is the first UK Company to carry out Shale gas exploration in two sites in Lancashire. However the British Geological Society reported that the 1.5 magnitude earthquake on May 2011 and a subsequent 2.3 magnitude earthquake in April 2011 was a result of Cuadrilla’s fracking process. Their activities have been halted and DECC have requested a detailed report from Cuadrilla on their activities. Their activities were suspended and DECC requested a detailed report from Cuadrilla on their activities.  Cuadrilla produced a report in April 2012 confirming that the observed seismicity was induced by hydraulic facture treatments in the area but also stated that they should be allowed to continue with extraction activities subject to the use of use more sensitive fracture monitoring equipment and a DECC agreed induced seismic protocol for future operations. A decision for continuing with activity is pending.

We are at a critical stage in this debate, there is no comprehensive mining framework that regulates shale gas extraction in the EU and the European Commission is currently trying to determine whether existing regulatory frameworks (for example environment and health related directives) are good enough to protect member states from the social and environmental risks that shale gas activities pose. The public have noticeably made a difference in halting activities in countries like France and the UK. The current path we are walking down will cause permanent damage to the environment for a resource which will not meet our demand for gas in any meaningful way. The more we know, the more we can speak up and actively influence the way we would like to shape energy security for the future. We must keep pointing at the flaws of this current system, and this will help us to unearth of a new, better system.

[1] A useful primer on shale gas can be found on the DECC website


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