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Desperate U.K. Turns to Shale Gas

To meet emissions goals, the U.K. is reluctantly turning to fracking of shale gas.
September 10, 2013

Proposed U.K. government policies to encourage hydrofracking of natural gas ignited a firestorm of protest this summer, with critics complaining that they were not consulted and that rules will restrict local planners’ authority. But the country appears to have few other options. The United Kingdom is in an energy quagmire that is forcing it to turn to shale gas.

fracking station with rigs
Fracking fight: In mid-August, the energy company Cuadrilla Resources suspended operations of this exploratory shale gas drilling site in southeast England after protests from residents and environmentalists.

The country’s aggressive carbon emissions goals call for the U.K.’s power supply to be virtually carbon-free by 2030. But the government had been planning to slash emissions with low-carbon power strategies—new nuclear reactors and carbon capture and storage systems on existing power plants—that remain too expensive to build. And conventional natural gas from the North Sea that could buy time for the scale-up of renewable power is dwindling.

Cost matters to U.K. voters. Nearly three-quarters of its citizens are worried about climate change, according to a national poll released by the London-based U.K. Energy Research Centre in July. But more than four-fifths told the researchers that they are “fairly or very concerned” that both electricity and gas will become unaffordable in the next 10 to 20 years.

If the U.K. can’t find an affordable supply of natural gas via hydrofracking of its shale deposits, it might have to restart mothballed coal-fired power plants to keep the lights on in future decades. “One way or another, we’ll muddle through,” says George Day, economic strategy manager at the Loughborough-based Energy Technologies Institute, a partnership between industrial firms and the U.K. government. “Whether we’ll hit our carbon targets is another question,” says Day.

Those targets would slash greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels. For the country to get there, the U.K. power industry would have to slash its carbon intensity from more than 500 to 50 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour by 2030, according to the quasi-independent Committee on Climate Change. Under that committee’s roadmap, 60 percent of new cars sold in 2030 should be electric, rising to 100 percent by 2035.

Day and other government advisors project that such ambitious targets are well beyond what renewable energy alone can deliver, however. Britain’s solar potential pales in comparison to even Germany’s lackluster supply of sunlight, leaving wind power—principally from offshore farms—to carry the burden. “Do we actually have the industrial capacity to deliver 50-plus gigawatts of offshore wind within the next decade or two?” says Day. “That would be very difficult.”

Even some renewables advocates agree that the U.K. must pursue nuclear and carbon-capture technology as well. “It seems likely that you’re going to need all of the above,” says Briony Worthington, shadow minister for energy and climate change for Labour in the House of Lords. At the very least, says Worthington, the U.K. should seek new reactors to maintain nuclear’s 20 percent share of the power supply as a source of low-carbon energy.

The problem for the government is that investment in CCS and nuclear is, at present, nonexistent. To a large extent that is a failure of the European Trading System, which was intended to render low-carbon technologies competitive with fossil fuels. With the collapse of Europe’s carbon market, that incentive is missing.

To attract CCS and nuclear investment, the U.K. established its own carbon prices that are set to rise to £30 per ton by 2020 and £70 per ton a decade later. It has also proposed floor prices for low-carbon power, with the government topping up a generator’s revenues if the market price falls below a fixed threshold. To support CCS it has set aside £1 billion to defray the cost of building early CCS projects.

Still, investors are moving cautiously. Only two CCS projects are eyeing the government’s financing. A consortium led by Shell proposes to capture carbon dioxide from the Peterhead power station in Scotland and pipe it out to the North Sea for sequestration in a depleted oil and gas field. A second project would send carbon dioxide to the North Sea from a coal plant in North Yorkshire. Final investment decisions for those projects are not likely before 2014 or 2015.

Nuclear reactor construction is lagging further. While the government wants to see 16 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity operating by 2025, only one project is getting serious attention: a proposal by French power generator Electricité de France to build a 1,600-megawatt EPR reactor at the Hinkley Point nuclear station, whose 1970s-era reactors are scheduled to shut down in 2023.

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