Amongst the chink-clink of wine glasses at yesterday evening’s Open Cities Green Sky Thinking Max Fordham event, I find myself supping a high ball orange juice with an engineer who does energy retrofits – more precisely – heat retrofits. “Yeah. Drilling holes in Grade I Listed walls for the District Heating pipework is quite nervewracking, as you can imagine. When they said they wanted to put an energy centre deep underneath the building, I asked them, “Where are you going to put the flue ?””
Our attention turns to heat metering. We discuss cases we know of where people have installed metering underground on new developments and fitted them with Internet gateways and then found that as the rest of the buildings get completed, the meter can no longer speak to the world. The problems of radio-meets-thick-concrete and radio-in-a-steel-cage. We agree that anybody installing a remote wifi type communications system on metering should be obliged in the contract to re-commission it every year.
And then we move on to shale gas. “The United States of America could become fuel-independent within ten years”, says my correspondent. I fake yawn. It really is tragic how some people believe lies that big. “There’s no way that’s going to happen !”, I assert.
“Look,” I say, (jumping over the thorny question of Albertan syncrude, which is technically Canadian, not American), “The only reason there’s been strong growth in shale gas production is because there was a huge burst in shale gas drilling, and now it’s been shown to be uneconomic, the boom has busted. Even the Energy Information Administration is not predicting strong growth in shale gas. They’re looking at growth in coalbed methane, after some years. And the Arctic.” “The Arctic ?”, chimes in Party Number 3. “Yes,” I clarify, “Brought to you in association with Canada. Shale gas is a non-starter in Europe. I always think back to the USGS. They estimate that the total resource in the whole of Europe is a whole order of magnitude, that is, ten times smaller than it is in Northern America.” “And I should have thought you couldn’t have the same kind of drilling in Europe because of the population density ?”, chips in Party Number 3. “They’re going to be drilling a lot of empty holes,” I add, “the “sweet spot” problem means they’re only likely to have good production in a few areas. And I’m not a geologist, but there’s the stratigraphy and the kind of shale we have here – it’s just not the same as in the USA.” Parties Number 2 and 3 look vaguely amenable to this line of argument. “And the problems that we think we know about are not the real problems,” I out-on-a-limbed. “The shale gas drillers will probably give up on hydraulic fracturing of low density shale formations, which will appease the environmentalists, but then they will go for drilling coal lenses and seams inside and alongside the shales, where there’s potential for high volumes of free gas just waiting to pop out. And that could cause serious problems if the pressures are high – subsidence, and so on. Even then, I cannot see how production could be very high, and it’s going to take some time for it to come on-stream…” “…about 10 years,” says Party Number 2.
“Just think about who is going for shale gas in the UK,” I ventured, “Not the big boys. They’ve stood back and let the little guys come in to drill for shale gas. I mean, BP did a bunch of onshore seismic surveys in the 1950s, after which they went drilling offshore in the North Sea, so I think that says it all, really. They know there’s not much gas on land.” There were some raised eyebrows, as if to say, well, perhaps seismic surveys are better these days, but there was agreement that shale gas will come on slowly.
“I don’t think shale gas can contribute to energy security for at least a decade,” I claimed, “even if there’s anything really there. Shale gas is not going to answer the problems of the loss of nuclear generation, or the problems of gas-fired generation becoming uneconomic because of the strong growth in renewables.” There was a nodding of heads.
“I think,” I said, “We should forget subsidies. UK plc ought to purchase a couple of CCGTS [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine electricity generation units]. That will guarantee they stay running to load balance the power grid when we need them to. Although the UK’s Capacity Mechanism plan is in line with the European Union’s plans for supporting gas-fired generation, it’s not achieving anything yet.” I added that we needed to continue building as much wind power as possible, as it’s quick to put in place. I quite liked my radical little proposal for energy security, and the people I was talking with did not object.
There was some discussion about Green Party policy on the ownership of energy utilities, and how energy and transport networks are basically in the hands of the State, but then Party Number 2 said, “What we really need is consistency of policy. We need an Energy Bill that doesn’t get gutted by a change of administration. I might need to vote Conservative, because Labour would mess around with policy.” “I don’t know,” I said, “it’s going to get messed with whoever is in power. All those people at DECC working on the Electricity Market Reform – they all disappeared. Says something, doesn’t it ?”
I spoke to Parties Number 2 and 3 about my research into the potential for low carbon gas. “Basically, making gas as a kind of energy storage ?”, queried Party Number 2. I agreed, but omitted to tell him about Germany’s Power-to-Gas Strategy. We agreed that it would be at least a decade before much could come of these technologies, so it wouldn’t contribute immediately to energy security. “But then,” I said, “We have to look at the other end of this transition, and how the big gas producers are going to move towards Renewable Gas. They could be making decisions now that make more of the gas they get out of the ground. They have all the know-how to build kit to make use of the carbon dioxide that is often present in sour conventional reserves, and turn it into fuel, by reacting it with Renewable Hydrogen. If they did that, they could be building sustainability into their business models, as they could transition to making Renewable Gas as the Natural Gas runs down.”
I asked Parties Number 2 and 3 who they thought would be the first movers on Renewable Gas. We agreed that companies such as GE, Siemens, Alstom, the big engineering groups, who are building gas turbines that are tolerant to a mix of gases, are in prime position to develop closed-loop Renewable Gas systems for power generation – recycling the carbon dioxide. But it will probably take the influence of the shareholders of companies like BP, who will be arguing for evidence that BP are not going to go out of business owing to fossil fuel depletion, to roll out Renewable Gas widely. “We’ve all got our pensions invested in them”, admitted Party Number 2, arguing for BP to gain the ability to sustain itself as well as the planet.