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Renewable Energy Training Courses | European Energy Centre

Fracking vs. Renewables?

The issue of ‘Hydraulic Fracturing’ or ‘Fracking’ for short, is currently receiving a great deal of media attention and has been seen as both a panacea to concerns about energy availability and prices domestically and internationally and conversely as an ecologically damaging, polluting and unnecessary industry. Renewable energy technologies are also often seen in very binary terms; as either an ecological panacea or as money making scams that damage landscapes. The issue of ‘fracking vs. renewables’, as clearly put forward in a recent Guardian article (Williams, 2013) is most definitely not a case of either/or. In order to evaluate the issues involved, what is meant by each term must be defined and the various benefits and limitations of each examined in relation to the wider energy context.

Fracking

Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking’ for short, is a method of extracting hydrocarbon gas or liquid from a type of sedimentary rock called ‘shale’ deposits where it is trapped in very fine cracks in the rock (BBC News, 2013). In conventional oil/gas wells it is trapped in a pocket below a layer of impermeable rock, a hole simply needs to be bored through this layer and the oil or gas can be pumped up to the surface. Up until relatively recently the inaccessibility of shale hydrocarbons has meant they have not been viewed as a viable energy source. However, fracking uses technologically novel techniques to access them:

Initially holes are dug vertically to a layer of shale rock, the drill is then turned horizontally running for miles underground (BBC News, 2013). Once the hole has been dug “slick water” is pumped at high pressure into the hole forcing the cracks in the rock to widen (BBC News, 2013). The slick water also contains small grains called “propens” [very much like sand] which hold the fissures open (BBC News, 2013). As the rock is broken up, the gas is released and flushed back to the surface and captured (BBC News, 2013).

(BBC News, 2013)

Potential of the technology

This technology has quite widespread potential for deployment in regions with relevant geological formations and as a result there is keen interest in many parts of the world . The technology has already been widely used in the United States with substantial short term energy returns (Glover & Economides, 2013). This success has further increased interest in using fracking in many countries concerned with mitigating resource shortages and for the potential economic benefits the technology could bring (Glover & Economides, 2013).

Constraints and Drawbacks

However, there are a number of constraints on the extent to which it can be applied – It is a very water intensive industrial process, which is likely to conflict with other land uses such as agriculture, other industries and domestic consumption as recently illustrated by a case in Texas (Goldenberg, 2013).


Ecological and safety concerns

There are also a number of ecological and safety concerns with the use of the technology. There have been a number of reports of pollution caused by unsafe operating practices in a number of areas as well as the potentially high carbon intensity of the fuel compared to renewables or even conventional gas extraction. Some pollution may stem from regulatory issues rather than necessarily with inherent issues with the technology (Biello, 2013); for example, ground water contamination is likely to stem from negligent operating practices (Meyendorff & Brantley, 2013). However, though the technology can provide domestic resources of gas, which when conventionally produced is a less carbon intensive fuel than others such as coal, when produced from fracking the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions could potentially equal that of coal (Tollefson, 2012, p. 1). Fugitive methane escaping from fracking sites can also lead to higher levels of ground level ozone (Zawacki, 2012, p. 30) which has been linked to reduced plant growth and could affect crop yields (Warnert, 2002).

Concerns about the long term viability of the industry

Concerns have also been raised about the methods via which fracking operations have been financed with a substantial component of fracking companies’ profit margins being created by speculative property purchasing (Foss, 2011). The effect of an increase in domestic gas supplies within the United States from the fracking boom has also led to a perceived glut of the resource depressing domestic gas prices below the cost price at which fracking companies can operate causing great disruption in the sector and increasing the risk of future supply shortages (Foss, 2011).

Obtaining gas from fracking also has a very low net Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) [the amount of energy that can be obtained from an energy source in relation to the amount of energy that has to be put in order to obtain it]. Shale gas yields a very low net energy surplus for the energy input compared to conventional natural gas production [See fig below] (Foss, 2011).

In addition to a low EROEI and economic uncertainties about the business model fracking wells have very high geological depletion rates compared to conventional natural gas wells (Foss, 2011). For example, the ‘Bakken Shale’, an area of the United States where extensive drilling has been undertaken has a very steep production decline curve [see fig. below] (Meijer, 2013).

In order to maintain levels of output for such a field this high depletion rate leads to what is known as the ‘Red Queen Effect’, where more and more wells have to be dug to maintain output (Meijer, 2013). Whilst this can be continued for a period there are limitations to this as local resource constraints limit the total number of wells that can be dug (Kentworthy, 2013).


Renewables

Renewable energy technologies are those which generate [primarily electricity] from replenishible resources such as sunlight, the wind, geothermal heat etc. They provide a range of different technological possibilities to replace or complement energy generation from hydrocarbon sources though each of these technologies has its own limitations for a range of social, ecological, thermodynamic and design reasons (Foss, 2012). Nuclear power will not be considered here, as though it constitutes a form of low carbon electricity generation, the supplies of material for reactors are finite and the complexity of the various nuclear tractor designs themselves - and the associated issues of safety - merit their own category.

Renewables also differ from fossil fuel energy sources in a number of ways;

For example, most renewable technologies can generate much greater amounts of electricity in particular areas than others due to local factors such as topography, levels of rainfall, sunlight etc. Solar power offers the most uniform potential for electricity generation [varying with latitude] and greatest potential electricity yield per area [see below (Trieb & Müller-Steinhagen, 2007)].

Additionally, the energy efficiency and amount of EROEI that different technologies can generate differs between different types; Hydroelectricity generation for example, has a substantially higher EROEI than any current wind turbine technology (Ingenious Designs, 2013). Many renewables are also relatively new technologies and the efficiency and cost of some technologies are changing rapidly (Ingenious Designs, 2013). This combined with the fact that different technologies are best suited to particular geographical areas and country specific energy policies make a case by case examination of these technologies inappropriate internationally.

Fracking vs. renewables?

In the International Energy Context

Existing energy infrastructure is primarily engineered for power generation from fossil fuel sources meaning that fracking can supplement existing power generation with less additional cost than many renewable technologies which may make it a more appealing investment. Fracking does however have the potential to cause severe localised pollution issues and does very little in real terms to reduce carbon emissions which is essential to reduce the effects of human induced climate change and meet agreed reductions in emissions in many countries. If strictly regulated fracking could provide a short term supplement to natural gas supplies in a relatively safe manner for countries concerned about security of supply.

Renewables, whilst presenting additional engineering challenges to existing grid infrastructure than fossil fuels have the potential, depending on the maturity of the technology, local factors [geographic, infrastructure etc.] and its EROEI have the potential to complement and eventually displace hydrocarbon based energy generation on a large scale. In order for this to be realised it will also require financial investment and appropriate policy from governing bodies.

Overall, fracking can serve to extend supplies of current fuels, whereas renewables, in conjunction with measures such as energy conservation, can offer a much more long term solution to the issues of reducing carbon emissions and maintaining energy supplies.

In the Energy Context of the UK

The government of the United Kingdom has committed to reducing the country’s GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 (www.legislation.gov.uk, 2013). In order to achieve this there has been substantial investment in renewable energy over the past decade and the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources in the UK as of 2012 was 11.3% (www.gov.uk, 2013, p. 155). This is also in conjunction with plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations with some low carbon generation from efficient fossil fuel plants and energy conservation measures (Moran, 2013).

Though the UK has been able to increase significantly the proportion of electricity in the country generated by renewable sources it is still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels to provide the energy for its economy and the energy required for other uses such as private transportation and domestic heating are even more fossil fuel reliant (Moran, 2013). Natural gas is used for cooking and heating in millions of households and is now being used to power gas fired power stations to provide a lower carbon form of electricity generation than older coal plants (Moran, 2013).

This increase in electricity generation demand on gas, whilst a cost effective means of meeting carbon emissions reductions targets, needs a reliable supply of gas. North Sea reserves are declining and there is increasingly international demand and in international gas markets pushing up prices (Foss, 2013). In light of these issues the UK government has been exploring avenues of increasing gas supply and has begun to promote fracking as a means of doing so (Foss, 2013). The UK government have been promoting fracking (Harrabin, 2013) and there has been widespread media coverage and public concern about the issue e.g. (Harris, 2013). The government, though encouraging the development of the industry with low tax rates (Macalister & Harvey, 2013), has issued guidelines to companies who would wish to operate in the UK (DECC, 2013). Much of the public concern about the issue has stemmed from a number of incidents of industrial pollution in the United States, though these are of course laudable concerns they are less likely if the industry is developed with much stricter regulatory standards in the UK. If conducted safely it could provide a limited supply of domestic natural gas though the low EROEI, high population density of the UK, constraints over water usage and potentially high levels of public disapproval mean that it is likely to play a relatively small role in the UK energy mix.

In order for the UK to meet its GHG emission reduction targets and maintain electricity supply the use of gas is pivotal as a transition fuel to reduce emissions from hydrocarbon based electricity generation. Fracking is being pursued to increase the security of gas supply. However, this function could alternatively be provided by increasing gas storage capacity reserves to buffer against increased weather related demand or market price volatility avoiding the controversies that fracking raises.

This, in conjunction with appropriate incentives and investments in various renewable technologies to enable them to achieve market parity with fossil fuels could provide a method for the UK to achieve its goal to transition to a low carbon economy. The nature of government policy towards both technologies will be the ultimate decider as to whether it is a case of fracking vs renewables or some combination of both.

Additional Information

-       Hall, Charles A.S. "EROI: definition, history and future implications"(PowerPoint). 

http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/talks/EROI6a.ppt


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Written by Gordon Moran for the EEC

 

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