This post is by Dr Bruce Tofield, associate consultant at the Adapt Low Carbon Group, University of East Anglia.
In launching Next steps for shale production, energy minister Michael Fallon said that fracking “is an exciting prospect, which could bring growth, jobs and security”. There is, however, great concern about the damaging local environmental impact of fracking in Britain. Less remarked upon is fossil fuel lock-in, highlighted recently by Rachel Cary. As Michael Liebreich, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, has pointed out “If the UK ever becomes dependent on shale gas, it will never be able to kick the fracking habit.”
Fracking isn’t the right strategy for climate change
As fracking means fossil fuel lock-in, it will undermine the potential to tackle climate change successfully. Financial incentives to communities for fracking are subsidies for polluters. As pointed out by Caroline Lucas during Green Alliance’s annual debate last November, current action to tackle climate change already falls far short of what is required. Recent reports point to the potentially catastrophic consequences of predicted increases in global greenhouse gas emissions.
UK consumers are squeezed between the rock of ever increasing energy bills and the hard place of a massively inefficient housing stock. The government’s solution, sadly, is to debate how best to extract more fossil gas to heat our homes. Ambitious strategy, towards an energy efficient, sustainable, renewables based economy, is absent in the UK.
There’s ambition abroad
Luckily, other countries are more ambitious. Germany’s energy transformation (energiewende) has stimulated investment in renewables that already provided 23 per cent of German electricity in 2012 and the country plans to reduce energy demand in 2050 by 50 per cent from 2008 levels and electricity demand by 25 per cent. Denmark aims to transform energy supply entirely to renewables by 2050, completely eliminating use of fossil fuels.
German industry is increasingly benefiting from low marginal cost renewable power (for further details see the note below), while half of renewable energy is owned by individuals or community groups who then benefit from the profits generated and receive back the costs of the feed-in tariff. Major German cities such as Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich own their own power grids.
Germany’s renewable gas solution
But the fracking debate is about gas for heating homes in particular. Germany will still need gas for heating for many years to come, just as the UK will. Where will this gas come from? The German Federal Environment Agency (Umwelt Bundesamt, UBA) has recently published a report showing that it is technically possible to reduce that country’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 100 per cent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. The scenario mapped out describes an energy supply system based entirely on renewables and the conversion of power from renewables into hydrogen, methane (gas) and liquid hydrocarbons by ‘power-to-gas’ and ‘power-to-liquid’ processes.
Yes there can be gas, but with no need for fossil fuels or fracking. Power-to-gas and power-to-liquid processes will certainly take time to become viable but so did solar PV and wind. Because of early action by Germany and Denmark, solar PV and wind are now helping push electricity prices down not up.
An innovative, energy efficient, renewables based economy, as outlined by the UBA in Germany, could also be achieved in the UK but needs government ambition. Such a path will keep energy costs down, avoid the environmental damage that fossil fuel technologies cause and provide the chance to help mitigate the potentially catastrophic climate change that otherwise seems inevitable.
While wholesale electricity prices to industry in Germany have been held down as a result of the increasing impact of renewable electricity, the costs of the feed-in tariff that has funded the introduction of renewables have been imposed on domestic and small business customers, so contributing to steadily increasing domestic electricity rates in recent years to a level higher than in the UK. However, in contrast to the situation in the UK where electricity prices are predicted to double, the impact of renewables will lead also to declining domestic prices in Germany, possibly as soon as 2014. For further clarity on the German situation see ‘Separating fact from fiction ‘In Accounts of Germany’s renewables revolution by Amory Lovins.