Fracking has been hailed as the answer to our dwindling North Seas gas supplies and our increasing reliance on gas imports, not to mention the ever rising energy prices. In the hope of replicating the alleged success of fracking in the United States, the government has recently lifted a temporary ban on fracking in the UK, allowing energy companies to resume their drilling. While supporters of fracking argue that in times of an insecure geo-political environment accessing UK-based unconventional gas reserves will increase our energy security, helping to foster economic growth by supporting our own energy industry, opponents, of which there are many, point to the environmental risks associated with this new technique and the unproven impacts on jobs and energy prices. However, not many voices in this debate talk about the amount of energy we waste and the many tried and tested local solutions, such as combined heat and power, which already exist in the UK and many parts of Europe, and which are much more low-tech and hence far more affordable.
Fracking is a fairly unconventional technique (the technical term is hydraulic fracturing) to release natural gas in shale rock (hence also called shale gas) deep underground, which has been used by the gas and oil industry for some time. However, it has been labelled ‘unconventional’ because it involves many new techniques that have only recently become economically viable, leading to a significant expansion of fracking (particularly in the US). It involves drilling holes deep into the rock, pumping fluids (a mixture of water, sand and chemicals) into it, which then releases the gas. Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) data shows that planning applications for fracking projects have already been approved (or are in the process of being approved) up and down the country, particular hotspots being Lancashire, Somerset and the South East as well as Scotland and South Wales.
Although a June 2012 report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering stated that risks associated with hydraulic fracturing are low, provided that a good regulatory system is in place, and no immediate plans are in place to start drilling in the East of England, fracking is still of key concern to the people, companies and policy makers in our region. First of all, the East has emerged as a considerable player in the renewable energy market. Thousands of jobs have already been or will be created in the renewable energy industry. Off-shore wind is one of the fastest growing industries in the region, which is the reason why the New Anglia partnership, for example, has big ambitions to turn the East into an engine for the green economy. Fracking is threatening this vision of a greener economy by diverting investments away from renewables.
The key critique against fracking is that, although a fairly new approach to energy generation, it must be regarded as being part of an old paradigm that favours fossil fuels over renewables, such as wind, wave and sun, involving many negative environmental and climate change implications. Many communities that have had to face fracking have been resisting these projects because of two key threats to their livelihoods. First, fracking is proven to have caused local earthquakes. As fluids are pumped into the rocks underneath at high pressure, there is a risk of fractures and earth tremors. Second, as large volumes of water (up to 19 million litres per well) are needed for this method, there are real concerns about water shortages as well as contamination. Although we have had a pretty wet 2012, let’s not forget that some parts of the UK (especially the East and Southeast) are very dry indeed, and it might be that we are back to drought very soon. Also, many communities that have had to deal with fracking in their area have already reported on leakages that have compromised water quality. There are even concerns about increased cancer rates. While the industry denies the significance of these concerns, arguing that they are anything but widespread phenomena, it seems sensible to be cautious, given the potentially immense impacts for communities and their health and well-being. It is for this very reason that most countries in Europe have either a moratorium in place or have banned fracking altogether.
Then there is the negative impact on our climate, which should concern everybody in this country. The UK has legally binding targets in place to reduce its carbon emissions over the coming decades. Expanding the fossil fuel energy industry does nothing to help us achieve this target; in fact, it is a step in the wrong direction. We need to invest vast amounts of money into our energy sector in the coming decades, as older generation of coal, gas and nuclear power stations have to be phased out. We need to make sure that this investment is into future proof technologies that help us achieve a greener future and a decarbonised energy sector. If fracking is rapidly expanded, as the government and sections of the industry want, then we will be locked into an old energy paradigm for decades to come.
A future energy paradigm for the UK should be much more focused on individual and community-based energy generation, bearing in mind that massive savings can be made by reducing wastage. Some estimates claim that by changing energy consumption behaviour and increasing usage efficiency we could save as much as half of our energy needs. If we don’t need half as much energy as we currently do, we can easily switch off many dirty coal plants, for example, not to mention the gamble we seem to take with high-cost approaches such as fracking. But there is a general change of mindset in energy policy required, which so far has heavily favoured a big business, centralised approach to energy generation, involving vast investments and big infrastructure projects.
Energy production should be much more localised, which would save on transportation costs and take advantage of combined heat and power (CHP) efficiencies. Most power stations and other industrial sites currently waste the heat they are producing, which could be used, for example, to heat homes and offices. Many CHP plants (although known as co-generation), on the other hand, provide decentralised, highly efficient ways to generate energy that is produced and consumed locally.
A step up from CHP would be community owned generators, such as wind and solar panel farms. Take the town of Lewes near Brighton. There, a Transition Town group has got together to start a community energy generation company, planning to set up a community owned solar panel system on top of people’s houses. The Coop has also recently started Co-operative Energy, which helps communities set up their own renewable energy projects, with local people stumping up the investment themselves, partaking directly in the generation of renewable energy, seeing a real impact on their energy bills. Local energy for local communities. This is the mantra that could see a real drop in energy prices, which even the renewable energy sector has failed to deliver for consumers so far.
We need a local energy policy that encourages and actively supports local councils, parishes, local communities and individuals in the East and other parts of the UK to generate their own energy. Everybody can be an energy generator if people get together to organise themselves. While many have taken advantage of government support for putting solar panels on their roofs, these tend to be well-off, middle class people who can afford the significant start-up costs. We need a local energy revolution that enables everybody to take part in community opportunities of the renewable energy sector. It is time for us to take energy production into our own hands, rather than expecting the government or big corporations to keep the lights switched on.
About the author:
Steffen Böhm is Professor of Management and Sustainability and Director of the Essex Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the University of Essex, Colchester. The ESI brings together expertise on environmental sustainability from a range of different departments, disciplines and partner organisations of the University of Essex, particularly focusing on energy, food, health, behavioural change, governance and community engagement. Prof Böhm currently also runs a research project on the connections between local food and well-being in the East of England, co-funded by the East of England Co-operative Society and the British Academy. Web-pages: http://steffenboehm.net; http://www.essex.ac.uk/ebs/staff/profile.aspx?ID=727