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To Frack or not to Frack? - what is the question?年九月 2013

Henry Lawson, Market Research Consultant at BSRIA looks at fracking from another angle, asking if shale gas could help or hinder reduction in UK CO2 emissions?

Recent debate about fracking in the UK, and in particular the controversy surrounding the extraction of shale gas near the English village of Balcombe in Sussex has tended to focus mainly on the immediate environmental impact, the nature of the opposition, and the tactics of the opponents.

While some discussion has touched on the key question as to what the impact of fracking might be on gas prices in the UK and internationally, there has been less attention paid to how it could affect wider energy policy and energy efficiency.

For several decades the UK has “enjoyed” fairly abundant supplies of relatively cheap gas, which has, amongst other consequences, meant that it has had less urgent need to invest in alternatives. From the standpoint of CO2 emissions, gas has been seen as a “lesser evil”, a carbon compromise, less polluting than coal or oil, but cheaper than most renewables.

If it succeeds in overcoming the obstacles, will shale gas help or hinder the drive to reduce the UK’s emissions by 80% by 2050? One factor here is combined heat and power (CHP) which can make use of heat that would otherwise be wasted, and which is mostly powered by gas.

While Micro CHP is of course a possibility, achieving the greatest efficiencies, and the most optimal use of heating, requires not just economies of scale but a means of using the heat in a balanced way. This requires the ability to transmit the heat to where it can be used (which could be in heating of homes, offices, factories or almost any building), when it is most needed.

One snag is that, because gas powered generators need to run most of the time to be efficient, much of the heat is produced when it is least needed, e.g. in the middle of the night, or in high summer (which as we have lately been reminded, does sometimes happen in the UK). There is therefore a need to store the heat, for hours, or potentially for weeks or months until it is needed.

Fortunately this is not only possible, but has been a feature of heat networks and district heating for decades. District heating is far less developed in the UK than in many other countries. But could it be that shale gas could, if the environmental concerns of the fracking process can be addressed, in turn increase pressure to ensure that gas is used in a more efficient and less environmentally damaging way? If so CHP in particular and district heating could be a part of this.