17th February 2013
Over the next twenty years there is a (fairly conservative) estimate that peak demand for energy in the UK will have risen by 7% based on today’s usage, even taking into account energy efficiency measures such as the Green Deal and the ECO Affordable Warmth Scheme. Yet unless we establish new sources of energy, our generating capacity will fall by over 40% in that time. Peak demand could exceed our capacity to generate energy by 2024 and although there are many different opinions on how to solve this problem, what everyone agrees on is that we need to act quickly.
This energy crisis could be the most serious problem to be faced by this Government, the next and possibly the one after that. This is not least because nuclear plants which produce about 20% of our energy started to be shut down last year and by 2023 we will have just one in operation. Add to that the fact that by mid-2013 several coal-powered power stations capable of providing up to 6 million homes with energy will be closed under EU rules on carbon emissions. This means that by the early part of the next decade Britain will have lost almost a third of its energy generating capacity.
Nuclear power, renewables, biomass or fracking?
Solutions under discussion include new nuclear plants, increases in renewable energy, conversion of coal-powered power stations to biomass and shale gas from ‘fracking’ techniques. Of these, the greatest potential appears to be shale gas but just like the others forms of energy generation it has its opponents. In the United States shale gas has been exploited to such levels that energy bills have been slashed for both domestic consumers and businesses. But while over 15,000 wells have been drilled for shale gas in one part of Texas alone, in Britain so far there are two. Current estimates suggest that in theory there could be sufficient shale gas under the ground in Britain to heat every single home here for 1,500 years. And though some energy experts claim that only around 10% of that is likely to be commercially exploitable, even so most politicians would accept 150 years as the estimated life span of British shale gas. Yet one of the biggest obstacles to shale is obtaining planning permission to extract it.
So what is fracking?
Fracking involves the hydraulic fracturing of layers of shale rock more than a mile deep in the earth in order to extract natural gas. Fracking techniques make it possible to extract natural gas from shale which was previously unreachable using conventional technology. A drill bores down to the layers of shale before turning horizontally, where tiny explosions fracture the rock. Millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are forced down into the layers of shale where they make space for the natural gas. This gas then flows back up the shaft where it can be collected.
So what is the solution to this energy crisis?
Producing natural gas using fracking techniques may seem the obvious solution to this potential energy crisis but it could be dangerous to rely on extracting gas from shale alone. The immediate need is to replace the nuclear power stations and coal-powered power stations as the old energy sources are switched off. Nuclear power is difficult to argue against as it is a proven zero-carbon technology with low, stable operating costs. Whilst the Green lobby are pushing for more renewable energy sources, the Government wants to cut the demand for power by using energy more efficiently – hence the Green Deal and the ECO Affordable Warmth Scheme. Whichever energy source is invested in, the upfront costs are enormous and both public and private investment is required. No doubt the debate will run on, but in the meantime it would be a sad state of affairs if indecisive action and arguments over planning permission meant that the lights went out over Britain.