Ideology, Nimbyism, Solar power, Technology, Wind power

A renewable energy future. Really?

“Dear Aunty, is it true what Gail says – that we can meet all our needs with just renewables?”

It’s certainly true that more and renewable energy generating capacity is being added to the network every year, dears, but I’m afraid the notion that we can somehow power the UK just with renewables is somewhat fanciful right now.

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Asthetics and appearance, Ideology, Local Impacts, Nimbyism, Planning consent, Science, Site location, Surface Impacts, Technology

“Dear Aunty, have we seen unfounded scare stories and pseudo-science used to protest any other developments in the recent past – like we now see with shale gas?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have dears.

The type of development in question met with fierce opposition across the UK, with those objecting to it claiming that it was responsible for breast cancer clusters, unexplained nosebleeds and headaches, motor neurone disease – even skin cancer – and a whole host of other health problems poppets.

All the while, evidence from respected independent bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) supported the case of the developers – that the technology was safe and that it wasn’t responsible for the health concerns being attributed to it.

Opponents denounced the science at every turn, often questioning its independence and, in turn, producing their own studies that supported their position. Objectors used emotive, alarmist language, drawing on asbestos and smoking analogies and using phrases such as “as residents, we do not want to be the human guinea pigs.”

Sounds just like the situation we have today doesn’t it, only this time it’s shale gas and fracking.

So, what exactly was this nationwide development that caused such anxiety in Britain?

Mobile phone masts.

It seems like a lifetime ago now, doesn’t it cherubs? And yet, as recently as 2006, the Daily Mail featured this article on the subject claiming that a mobile mast in Stoke-on-Trent was responsible for 27 deaths

Now, though, mobile phone masts are as ubiquitous as the mobile phones, tablets and other communications devices that rely on them, sweeties.

Mobile phones have revolutionised our work and our lives. They’ve made it easier for us to keep in touch, and made business communications much slicker – aiding economic growth.

They’ve also saved lives – it’s much easier to call for emergency help now than at anytime in human history owing to the prevalence of mobile phones.

In fact, the societal advantages can’t be overstated dears.

And what happened to all the health concerns? Well, experience has proved them to be erroneous and unfounded over time.

As with shale gas extraction today, the driver behind the anti-mobile mast campaign was a fear of the unknown when something new appeared – with a dash of Nimbyism thrown-in by those who simply thought the masts were visually intrusive and probably a smidgeon of anti-capitalist sentiment.

Eventually, good sense prevailed and people saw through the scare stories and pseudo-science put about by the vocal minority of people opposed to mobile masts.

Another 10 years from now, once British communities have lived safely alongside sensible shale gas development, I think we’ll see that history repeated dears.

Until next time xxx


Ideology, Local Impacts, Solar power, Wave power, Wind power

“Dear Aunty, with all this talk of storms and climate change, does shale gas really have a place in our energy mix?”

What a fascinating question, dears, and one that allows me to address the place of shale gas in the wider context of the UKs efforts to reduce emissions of Greenhouse Gases.

The last few weeks have seen intense rainfall affecting parts of the UK, and leading to localised yet significant flooding in some areas – like the Somerset levels – and it hasn’t taken long for the usual suspects at Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to start telling us these weather patterns are evidence of global climate change.

Now, I’m not a climatologist or a meteorologist, so it’s not for me to say whether this inclement weather is a result of climate change or natural variation in weather patterns over the Atlantic, sweeties, but what is clear is that we need a rational debate about it and one that isn’t politicised or used as a platform for zealots pursuing an unrealistic ‘green’ agenda.

However, if we presuppose that emissions are causing natural climatic variation to become more extreme or unpredictable, and that a significant source of those emissions is the use of fossil fuels to create electricity, it would seem sensible to try and do something about that and shale gas has a valuable role to play in that and so, yes, it has a vital role in our energy mix.

There are several reasons for this: firstly, burning natural gas to generate electricity produces around half the CO2 of coal (which currently supplies almost half of the UKs electricity needs) and so if we can use domestically sourced gas from shale to help us cut back on coal use, that will lower emissions; secondly, cherubs, we currently import a lot of gas from Europe (the transmission of which is energy intensive) and Qatar (which is liquefied for transport by sea in a horribly energy intensive process responsible for significant emissions of its own, before being shipped here in a journey that creates more emissions, whereupon it is re-gasified in another energy intensive process that is responsible for more emissions still) and so domestically sourced shale gas can reduce those imports and their associated emissions; and, thirdly dears, we will continue to need a companion for renewables like wind and solar for times when their output is naturally lower than we really need – such as a still and starry night in midwinter when there’s no wind to drive turbines and it’s dark.

But what we mustn’t do, my loves, is overlook the contribution of other industrial activities around the world that may also be contributing to climate change through the release of Greenhouse Gases. Take beef and dairy farming – known to be responsible for substantial and uncontrolled emissions of methane (a very potent GHG) from belching cattle. Or the production and use of nitrogen rich fertilisers for improving crop yields. Or deforestation to create pasture land for cattle grazing and growing food for a growing population. And many others besides.

Burning fossil fuels is clearly a sizeable contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions in the environment, but it’s far from being the only villain of the piece and we need concerted action on these other sources too.

Now, let me just make another observation about the notion of cutting back on coal use, sweeties, before Tony Bosworth at FOE comes at me saying that it will only be relevant if the rest of Europe and the world leave their coal in the ground: that may be true to some extent, but groups like FOE regularly argue this about renewables, saying that the UK needs to show leadership and that, in doing so, we’ll encourage other nations to do the same. Why won’t that be the same for a British led shale gas revolution? Why won’t others naturally follow our abandonment of coal in favour of using more gas alongside those renewables?

Finally, pumpkins, let me make one last observation before I leave you to ponder my earlier comments, and that’s about Britain’s contribution to global emissions of Greenhouse Gases and the effects of any reductions we might make here.

Because, you see, we’re no longer the industrial powerhouse we once were and so, in fact, the emissions we’re responsible for are actually quite low when compared to the USA, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Which means that whatever action we take here to reduce them, whether that’s “going all out for shale” or continuing to build renewables capacity (or, most likely and sensibly, both) the resultant drop in those emissions isn’t really going to make a difference at all. Which begs this question: are we perhaps better off making direct foreign investments in other countries to help big emitters to reduce their contribution to global Greenhouse Gas levels rather than driving up the costs of energy here?

Until next time xxx

Air emissions, Environmental controls, Flaring, Legislation, Local Impacts, Pollution prevention & control, Waste storage, Well integrity

“Dear Aunty, should green completions be mandatory in the UK?”

The simple answer to this question, sweeties, is no – they shouldn’t.

To understand why, you first need to know what ‘green’ completions are, and this handy description from Energy In Depth explains that very well:

Now, whilst a lot is said about the need for green completions in the UK, it is usually suggested that they are a means of eliminating flaring, but that’s not quite accurate. As you’ll see from the Energy In Depth post, even the US rules that impose the requirement for reduced emissions completions go on to say the captured gas, if it can’t be marketed, must be sent to completion combustion device (flare). It’s really about preventing unabated releases of methane.

I’ve posted on flaring before, if you recall sweetpeas, noting that we are unlikely to see anything like the amount of production flaring witnessed in some parts of the US, particularly in the Bakken shale play in North Dakota, but we will see some flaring in the early exploration wells.

Why poppets? Well, during exploration well testing, there is no alternative. That’s because:

(a) there may not be any gas at all
(b) if there is, there may be too much to use on site, but…
(c) there may be too little to warrant export to grid, and…
(d) the PEDL doesn’t allow the sale of hydrocarbons anyway

With no obvious alternative, gas produced during well testing has to be flared. But green completions may still be used, and in fact Cuadrilla already plans to use them in Lancashire.

Yes, that’s right dears: Cuadrilla will be performing green completions in Lancashire but will still have to flare some gas during exploration well testing.

How do we know this, if it isn’t mentioned anywhere in their public literature? Well, because they told us in the environmental permit applications they made in 2012, which were subjected to two separate rounds of public consultation with all the application documents being made available to view. In those applications, my darlings, they describe the high efficiency separator that separates the gas from flowback waste in the wellstream. That’s green completion. If the Environment Agency grants the permits, Cuadrilla must ever after continue to use green completions because it’s what is specified in the applications – so, dears, it’s not something they can occasionally choose to do just for PR reasons.

So, if they’re a good idea, why shouldn’t green completions be mandatory in the UK?

Well, it’s very simple pumpkins: they sort of already are. You see, our regulations oblige operators to prevent the fugitive escape of substances from the wells they drill, but they don’t specify how that should be achieved. It is quite rightly left to operators themselves to determine this. What people call green completions is just one way of preventing unabated methane releases, but there could be others that are better. If we start getting into the realms of prescription, rather than maintaining our goal-setting approach to regulation, we could very easily encourage complacency rather than continual improvement, and that would be a mistake sweeties.

I’ll leave you with one final point to remember: anybody that says green completions or ‘green tanking’ can eliminate the requirement for flaring altogether during exploration is either ignorant of the facts or attempting to deliberately mislead.

Until next time xxx

Ideology, Solar power, Technology, Wind power

“Dear Aunty, are you SURE we need fracked gas? Can we really not succeed with renewables alone?”

Oh dear, sweeties, it seems that some amongst you really haven’t got to grips with the limitations of renewable sources of energy yet.

I’m afraid we can’t meet all our needs with renewables alone, and that we need other sources of energy to compliment them.

I’ve covered this topic here before, but to recap:

1. Renewable energy sources are intermittent

2. They suffer from low power density

3. Conversion of Capacity into Output is typically low

The reality, cherubs, is that whilst these challenges may one day be overcome with advancements in technology and with energy storage techniques, we need to do something different right now if we’re to reduce global CO2 and other damaging atmospheric emissions – and that means continuing to install renewable capacity whilst at the same time phasing out our use of coal and replacing it with cleaner burning natural gas and nuclear energy.

Sadly, pumpkins, a number of individuals and groups continue to signal that a world powered by renewable energy alone is available imminently, when it’s not.

They do so by illustrating plans and investment with big, headline grabbing numbers, like this from Greg Barker MP – 20GW of solar PV sounds fantastic, especially compared to the average 35GW of electricity demand we have here in the UK.

But, alas, it’s not actual output he’s talking about, bless him, but installed capacity.

Which is a very different thing when you consider that the amount of electricity produced by solar panels averages between 10 and 20% of installed capacity, and so these ambitious plans would at best generate only 4GW of actual power, equal to 11% of demand. But only during the day, because solar’s biggest limitation is that it doesn’t produce anything at night, which is often when we need it most my dears.

According to the fantastic free e-book “Without Hot Air” produced by David MacKay (before he became DECC Chief Scientist) the limitations of solar PV are quite clear:

“The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000W per
square metre. That’s 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, we must make several corrections. We need to. compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60% of its value at the equator (figure 6.1). We also lose out because it is not midday all the time. On a cloud-free day in March or September, the ratio of the average intensity to the midday intensity is about 32%. Finally, we lose power because of cloud cover. In a typical UK location the sun shines during just 34% of daylight hours. The combined effect of these three factors and the additional complication of the wobble of the seasons is that the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of south-facing roof in Britain is roughly 110 W/m2, and the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of flat ground is roughly 100 W/m2.”

It’s likely that we’d run out of optimally south-facing roof space long before we got anywhere near adding meaningful generation…an average 10m2 solar installation would be 22 watts per m2. I’ll let you crunch the numbers to figure out the total roof area we’d need to obtain anything like even 1GW of actual electricity cherubs.

What about wind energy?

Here’s what David MacKay has to say about that:

“The windmills that would be required to provide the UK with 20 kWh/d per person amount to 50 times the entire wind hardware of Denmark; 7 times all the wind farms of Germany; and double the entire fleet of all wind turbines in the world.”

I promise, darlings, that I’m not trying to talk down the advantages of greater renewable energy production. It’s obvious to anyone that fossil fuels in their current form will eventually run out, and that burning them to create the power we’re all hungry for releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

But we need to be realistic about what we can achieve, in a sensible time frame and at a sensible cost – both financially and to the environment (because renewable technologies also come with an environmental cost – rare earth metals are used in solar panels for instance).

Utilising domestically sourced natural gas to generate electricity is much better than continuing to extract and burn coal, and better than burning imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which will only increase as North Sea reserves run out. Fracked gas could be part of the equation and shouldn’t be ruled out.

Simply repeating “renewables, renewables, renewables” as some sort of mantra isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference dears.

Until next time xxx

Environmental controls, Flaring, Noise

“Dear Aunty, isn’t flaring gas really noisy?”

Well, yes dears, it is. But only when you’re very close to a flare.

To answer this properly, pumpkins, I’m afraid we have to return to the science class at school!

Noise is generally described as an unwanted sound. For instance, a loud conversation at the next table in a restaurant can be noise if you’re not engaged in it and it makes it harder for you to hold a conversation of your own on your table.

So, in this case sweeties, you could say that the sound from a flare is a noise.

Sound itself is a transmission of energy through air, with the air molecules effectively transferring the energy from source to receptor.

Sound/noise can be easily mitigated.

For a start, my dears, we can fit barriers to prevent the sound energy from travelling too far. Trees act as a natural barrier, screening out sound (which is why we line our trunk roads and motorways with them).

But here’s the really interesting thing about sound: just like energy in the form of radiation, it follows the Inverse Square Law – doubling the distance from a noise source reduces its intensity by a factor of four.

So, the further away you are, cherubs, the less noticeable the sound or noise.

A diesel train travelling at 45 mph and heard from 100ft will put out 85 decibels (something the people of Balcombe will no doubt be familiar with given the frequency of trains crossing their much-beloved viaduct).

Shale gas exploration sites are typically located in relatively sparsely populated rural areas, surrounded by trees and hedges that act as natural noise screening. Flares in the UK, in these locations, will likely be enclosed and baffled to further deaden sound.

So, my dears, the likelihood of anybody being subjected to deafening noise day and night is very low indeed – and nothing like the footage in this short YouTube clip.

I particularly like the irony of the clown deliberately subjecting children to a noise level of 115 decibels after telling the assembled crowd that ‘health and safety’ insist on ear protection at noise levels above 80 decibels.

One last point to think about my dears: the photo below shows the location of Cuadrilla’s site about 500m away from the village of Balcombe. Assuming the clown in the video clip is correct and that the sound intensity of the flare is 115 decibels, then following the Inverse Square Law, the sound of the flare would measure just 61.02 decibels at the nearest residential properties or about the equivalent of an air conditioning unit heard from 100ft away – and that’s not allowing for the muffling effect of the trees in Stumble Field Wood and Upper Stumble Wood, which would reduce sound intensity even further.

Until next time xxx