What will shale gas displace in the UK energy mix?
Whenever shale gas is discussed, the question inevitably arises about what it is most likely to displace in the current UK energy mix and to what cost. But it’s the wrong question.
What we should be asking instead is “what do we want it to displace?”
The answer to this question is simple: as far as electricity generation is concerned, we want shale gas to help edge out the use of coal.
Climate and air quality benefits of shale gas at home
Coal is by far the dirtiest of these two fossil fuel sources. It emits twice the amount of CO2 as gas when burned, and is also responsible for the release of small particulate matter that’s linked to a whole host of health complaints.
For instance, in 2013, the charity Health and Environmental Alliance published a report claiming that old-style coal fired power stations in the UK are responsible for 1,600 premature deaths every year, and that health complications that lead to 360,000 lost working days – putting additional strain on the health service and employers.
Dr Michal Krzyzanowski, visiting professor at King’s College London and formerly with the European Centre for Environment & Health (ECEH) of the World Health Organisation, said: “The scientific evidence that air pollution causes disease is no longer in doubt. Ambient air pollution is recognised as a leading determinant of health globally and in western Europe – and coal combustion is an important source of this pollution. Energy policy must seriously consider the significant health costs resulting from the use of coal.”
Won’t displacing coal with shale gas just mean the coal gets used somewhere else?
Opponents of shale gas development in Britain are quick to point out that reduced demand for coal here will simply make more coal available more cheaply to other countries, encouraging them to burn it instead, with any emissions reductions here simply being offset elsewhere.
But the same people also say that if Britain continues to develop its renewable energy resources, and show strong leadership, other countries are sure to follow.
It’s difficult to reconcile these two positions: if other nations are prepared to follow our lead on renewables deployment, why wouldn’t they also abandon coal use in favour of cleaner burning shale gas?
Shale gas: a partner for renewables, not a replacement
Natural gas makes a very flexible partner for intermittent and variable renewables in electricity generation.
At night, when solar PV provides no power, or during the day when wind speeds drop below the level required to keep wind turbines spinning, we need an energy source that can be quickly brought online to take up the slack and balance load on the network. Burning gas in modern Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT) can provide this standby generation very rapidly.
Evidence from the US shows that, alongside its shale gas boom, renewables growth has also been very strong. Coal production and use for electricity generation in comparison, have slumped according to the US Energy Information Administration.
So, having asked and answered the correct question, the next thing we need to ask is “how do we achieve it?”
The most pressing priority we have is to drill and test more shale gas wells to prove the resource exists and can be produced in commercial quantities.
Only then can we make any sensible predictions about just how big the economic and environmental benefits could be, whilst demonstrating that it can be done safely.
But shale gas shouldn’t be seen or presented as the only solution to Britain’s energy trilemma of ensuring a secure, affordable and low-carbon future. It has to be part of a mix, and, to that end, Britain must continue to deploy more renewables capacity and new nuclear too, with policies designed to progressively increase lower carbon forms of energy.
It’s time to stop asking what shale gas could displace, and start taking necessary actions to make it replace coal, whilst sustaining and creating jobs in the British supply chain SMEs that support onshore oil and gas.