The future of Britain’s energy supply seems to be bleak. Feared Russian dominance of oil, China’s reliance on coal and the underdeveloped renewable energy sector are topics that always fuel pessimism surrounding this issue. At the beginning of the conflict surrounding Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, one of the most alarming statistics reported by The Washington Examiner was the fact that the price of crude oil rose above $100 per barrel, with “Traders … worried about turmoil in Ukraine and the prolonged disruption of oil exports.” In conjunction with this, economic sanctions supported by the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama are likely to “include companies from the Russian oil and gas sector,” thus furthering the costs of such a product, especially with Russia’s dominance over the market. With the growth of the Indian and Chinese economies, the demand for coal has also increased to plug a hole in their manufacturing resources; the majority of this coming from the US. However, our continued reliance on fossil fuels is going to have to come to an end, whether it’s this century or next, we need to make contingency plans for when the barrel runs dry.
Renewable energy has grown in prominence over recent years, with the government increasing the number of wind turbines to 5,491 (including offshore), now powering 6,202,728 homes. However, although the United Kingdom remains the “world's sixth largest producer of wind power," with the UK overtaking the capacities of France and Italy in 2012, the energy produced is a fraction of what is required to power Britain. In 2014, Siemens plan to build facilities for offshore wind turbines in Paull, England - able to begin production of rotor blades in 2016. Siemens also claim that there are also plans to increase Britain’s wind-generating capacity “at least threefold by 2020, to 14 gigawatts.”
In conjunction with wind energy, the field of renewable energy has several options to expand. Indeed, advancements in tidal, solar, hydroelectric and biomass technology are also looking to fuel the United Kingdom. The following demonstrates the makeup of energy production in the UK:
But where into this complicated mass fits shale gas, a source of energy that is controversial at the best of times? Is it the right time for fracking? Do we know enough? Or is it a fracking waste of time?
The table above evidences an increase in the use of bio-energies, but similarly an increasing reliance on gas. It also dispels a number of myths surrounding the energy market, with oil only equating for 1.5% of UK energy production. I’ll move onto the fracking question later, however, regardless of this consideration, the UK is suffering from an ‘energy gap’; the expectation being that a large amount of the coal fired power stations will close in the near future regardless of life extensions.
The UK’s power stations have had to be economised, regulated to a greater extent and forced to reduce carbon emissions in order to meet environmental orders, EU policy directives and government targets. This has led to reductions in capacity and a move to nuclear. Nuclear energy allows for a fall in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, but does raise controversial issues regarding nuclear waste, half life and the risk of accidents. In October 2010, the government authorised the building of eight new nuclear power plants against the will of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. This plan was thwarted in March 2012 as EON UK and Npower announced that they would not be developing new nuclear power plants. Regardless of these teething troubles, there was an “11% increase” in the use of nuclear power in 2011, which helped to reduce greenhouse gas by “7%” on 2010.
Shale gas is a vast and slightly unchartered ocean in terms of British supply. However, across the pond, it has rejuvenated US natural gas production, leading to the price of US energy manufacturing falling by 36% from 2006 to 2010. The Coalition Government is now entering into a fierce battle with UK landowners after the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, which declared that energy firms could begin fracking without permission from landowners. British energy supply has been overshadowed by enquiries and debates regarding the safety of fracking and whether it causes any structural damage to the earth’s surface, or creates the risk of earthquakes or landslides. It is estimated that the UK possesses around 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, “ten times the reserves… from the North Sea.” However, this discovery has been mired by two small earthquakes in 2011, which could potentially have been as a result of fracking. Regardless of this speculation, shale gas obviously has great potential; by 2020 it is expected to fulfil over half of the United States’ energy supply and the coalition has great hopes that this is the solution to the UK’s energy problems likewise.
The fact of the matter is that oil supply is not designed to accommodate the kind of usage it has seen in the last 70 years. Although it is not expected to run dry until well into the future, and will be rejuvenated by the very process which created it, we must look at new alternatives to reduce carbon emissions, to make ourselves more energy efficient and to become more self-reliant. That is why it is imperative that this government and future governments both in Westminster and internationally continue to look to new methods of production, new systems and new fuels. Nuclear, shale, hydro-electric - these are the future if used productively, and can be harness enough energy to sustain mankind.
By Tom Chidwick