The great energy debate – Scientific Alliance Newsletter

It is hardly surprising if people are confused about their energy supply. Chris Huhne, at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, made a major gaffe, by blaming consumers for high energy tariffs (Consumers too lazy to cut fuel bills, minister says) and was criticised by those who said that it’s not as easy as he thinks (the first rule of politics: don’t insult the voter). But that’s not the main problem. People following the news will have seen stories such as these recently:

Cuadrilla unveils huge new UK gas resources (story in the Petroleum Economist on reported shale gas discoveries in the Blackpool area)
Green energy revolution needed to stabilise power bills – new analysis (Friends of the Earth press release)
Deep cuts to feed-in tariff would put 10,000 jobs at risk (BusinessGreen article on a report from solar power company Engensa, concerned at government unwillingness to keep feed-in tariffs at the current high level)
Harvesting ‘limitless’ hydrogen from self-powered cells (BBC report on the development of microbial reverse-electrodialysis electrolysis, using microorganisms to release hydrogen and oxygen from seawater)

What exactly does the future hold? Will we really see a new supply of cheap gas upsetting the apple cart for the renewables lobby, or are Friends of the Earth right to see wind and solar as the technologies of the future? And what about the purported hydrogen economy?

Of course, if anyone could answer those questions with any reasonable degree of certainty, they would be busy making money, or at least setting up the companies which would make them wealthy. The truth is that we simply can’t tell what the energy market will look like it a generation’s time. After all, even the basic debate about peak oil has not been settled. Those who say we have pretty much reached that point make a convincing case, but it is just as easy to be swayed by more optimistic souls who point to previous announcements of the onset of the evil day having been wrong, while oil and gas reserves continue to increase. If agreement on something as basic as this has not been possible, a consensus on future supplies is hardly likely.

The problem is that, whatever enthusiasts may say, there seems little chance of wind or solar power truly becoming price competitive unless the peak oil scenario does force prices up considerably higher. So, it’s quite safe to say that FoE are wrong, at least at present: any stabilisation of power bills would be at a much higher level than at present. It’s equally right to be suspicious of the report from Engensa, whose business is installing solar panels; the company would fold if FITs were cut.

And the jobs they talk about are essentially in the construction industry. They, like other suppliers, will most likely source their PV panels from China, where they can be produced at relatively low cost (and using electricity largely generated from coal). There have been some recent high profile bankruptcies of solar panel manufacturers in America, because they simply were not price competitive. So any thought of building a green manufacturing sector is essentially a pipe dream: the Chinese solar panel industry is doing very nicely on the back of European and American taxpayer subsidies, and any new jobs in wind turbine manufacturing are also very likely to end up in the Far East.

What then, of hydrogen, if it can be made cheaply by microbes? Well, we mustn’t forget that hydrogen is just an energy carrier, not a primary energy source, so it is really immaterial in the debate about energy security. Unless, that is, more energy can be extracted by recombining hydrogen and oxygen than is required to split them in the first place. As a bald statement, that would appear to break the first law of thermodynamics, but if the energy for microbial growth came from the Sun or some plentiful, cheap nutrient, then maybe, just maybe, we would have a realistic, affordable source of renewable energy. But don’t hold your breath: the report is only about lab-scale experiments.

Which leaves us with the shale gas reserves. Ignoring the question of fracking, which has attracted opposition from some environmentalists, the two key questions are: how much gas is really there and how much can be economically recovered? This is an area of great debate and all we can really say for now is that those at the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion are almost certainly wrong. On one hand, shale gas is not a potential resource which can only be recovered using dangerous, polluting technologies and therefore should be ignored, but on the other hand it is unlikely to become a new resource which will dominate our energy future for the next couple of generations. Exploitation of the Marcellus shales in America has certainly increased US production (and reduced their price for gas) considerably, but the depletion characteristics of shale gas reserves are likely to be quite different from ‘conventional’ gas fields. Unless there are really vast reserves (and there could well be, but we don’t know yet), shale gas may be a relatively short-lived, albeit useful, resource.

In the meantime, we do know that many countries – the UK being a prime example – are in real danger of entering their first sustained period of energy insecurity for many years, because of governments’ failure to make sensible strategic decisions. In South Africa, an inexplicable failure by the government to invest in new power generation has left both industry and citizens of a growing economy subject to regular black-outs while power stations are at last being built. British voters are unlikely to be forgiving of any political party which managed the same trick because they failed to replace ageing coal-fired and nuclear stations with viable alternatives. Simply repeating the renewables mantra won’t keep the lights on. It seems almost certain that there will be many more gas-fired stations built in coming years, so let’s hope that shale gas does come good.

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