Shale gas is one of least sustainable ways to produce electricity – new report


Photo: Brian Smith Licence

Research by scientists at Manchester University has found that shale gas is one of the least sustainable choices for generating electricity.

Their reportSustainability of UK shale gas in comparison with other electricity options, looked at nine fuels, including shale gas, conventional gas, liquefied gas imports, coal, wind and solar.

Each was ranked against 18 sustainability indicators divided between economic, environmental and social impacts. Each indicator was weighted based on its relative importance in its group.

Assuming that the three groups were treated as equally important, the report ranked shale gas seventh out of the nine options for sustainable generation of electricity.

sustainable shale report graphic

Groups, indicators and fuel sources  Graphic: Total Science of the Environment

Co-author of the report, Professor Adisa Azapagic, said this was the first time that  economic, environmental and social impacts of shale gas have been considered together. She said:

“This enables us to evaluate its overall sustainability rather than focusing on single issues, such as water pollution, traffic and noise, which have dominated the debate on shale gas so far.”

chart 1

According to the report, published today in Science of the Total Environment, shale gas scored well on environmental measures, but fared badly on economic and social indicators.

It was assessed as having the lowest employment rate (47.7 person-years of employment per TWh generated, compared with 653 for Solar PV) and the lowest score on the public support index apart from coal.

The report studied how the rankings responded to changes in the relative importance of the three groups. It found that shale’s ranking never went above fourth whatever changes were made to the group weightings.

Shale would come out on top if it achieved a 70% improvement across all indicators, the report said.  It could match the sustainability of conventional gas by reducing its production costs by 25%.

The report concluded that shale was generally “not one of the better options” for the sustainable generation of electricity. Scenarios could be developed where shale gas was the most sustainable fuel but they were not very realistic, the report said.  Even matching the results for conventional gas, LNG and nuclear would require “large improvements in the performance of shale gas”.

“Serious flaws”

Ken Cronin chief executive of UKOOG, the body representing the onshore oil and gas industry, said of the report:

“The option of producing gas here with high environmental standards, compared to transporting gas halfway around the world from countries with lower environmental standards, has obvious environmental and economic benefits.

“When considering environmental aspects alone, the report shows that shale gas is more sustainable than solar. And published Environment Agency statistics show that onshore oil and gas is one of the best performing sectors in the UK when it comes to environmental performance.

“This report has a number of serious flaws.

“Firstly, it concentrates on electricity and ignores the 21 million homes that use gas for heating and the 500,000 jobs that are sustained using gas as a feedstock.

“Second, it assumes that electricity from LNG will cost less than shale gas, which is at odds with how the UK’s gas market works and shows a lack of understanding on the part of the authors.

“Third, it provides no data on the additional network and intermittency costs of options such as wind and solar.

“And fourth, the report does not provide its underlying economic assumptions, which we will only be able to determine once we have started exploring what is under our feet.”

The authors’ response

DrillOrDrop invited the report’s authors to respond to UKOOG’s criticism. They told us:

“Our paper does not consider the use of gas for heating but it is fair to say that the overall energy chain efficiency of using gas for heat is greater than that of using electricity for heat.

“However, we should also bear in mind that the heat sector is in need of rapid decarbonisation over the coming decades, and domestic heating does not lend itself to mitigation technologies like carbon capture. Consequently, shale gas has a quite narrow window of opportunity even in the heating sector.

“Regarding the environmental impacts of shale gas, it is correct that some impacts are higher for solar PV; however, the greenhouse gas emissions are five times higher for shale gas, together with some other impacts, than those for solar PV.

“Regarding the costs of shale gas, it is true that it is difficult to project costs before commercial extraction has started, but our estimates suggest that shale gas extraction will not be as cheap as some have speculated, and certainly not as cheap as it is in the USA.

“The point on intermittency is certainly fair but perhaps overstated given recent renewable cost developments.

“The last Contracts for Difference auction saw offshore wind project clear for £57.50/MWh, which is cheaper than the projected prices for new CCGTs (combined cycle gas turbines) which would be used to generate electricity from shale gas. “Similar rapid cost reductions are also occurring for solar power.

“In light of this, the total cost of renewables plus intermittency-mitigation (e.g. storage) might still be lower than, or comparable to, conventional CCGTs.”

28 replies »

  1. Studies like this one only serve to give academics a bad name. The study says that it aims to integrate environmental, economic, and social aspects of shale gas to measure sustainability, as if doing so were even possible in any objective manner. But what really gets me is the fact that the paper’s version of “sustainable” doesn’t even consider reliability nor does it factor back-up costs for renewables. In other words “sustainability” doesn’t relate to the ability to sustain human lives. The fact that people will be left out in the cold with unreliable and expensive power under the renewable power scenario isn’t even considered in the analysis. Any third grader would tear this document to shreds.

    • Need to read it again EKT, oh dear…..

      ‘unreliable and expensive power’ not renewable, price is reducing daily, and lasts a great deal longer than a quick burn- UK shale produced to date = zero.

      A third grader may tear this to sheds as they would hardly be able to read it let alone understand the concept; most adults on the other hand understand perfectly.

      This is the clue to help you understand the potential for shale as an energy source:
      ‘“However, we should also bear in mind that the heat sector is in need of rapid decarbonisation over the coming decades, and domestic heating does not lend itself to mitigation technologies like carbon capture. Consequently, shale gas has a quite narrow window of opportunity even in the heating sector.’

      Now shale as a contribution to plastic pollution……

      • Sherwulfe, You’ll have to kindly explain to us how it is that solar/wind plus fossil backup has any chance at being cheaper than fossil fuels alone. Very interested to see your math on that one!

        If you were truly interested in decarbonizing, you would be evangelizing shale gas at the top of your lungs. It’s the easiest way to very quickly eliminate all of the carbon and methane emissions from transporting fracked gas from around the world to the UK.

        Get ur facts straight!

  2. Lost immediate credibility when I saw how well ‘biomass’ was rated. This is a nutty professor that doesn’t get out in the real world. If you’ve worked in the biomass industry you will know how toxic it truly is.

  3. Just looking at the author’s response, it is clear that they are agenda-driven rather than fact driven. They opine on shale gas costs in the UK vs. the US without having any supporting evidence to back their claims. Those claims look dubious when evaluated in light of the fact that well pads in the UK will extract far more gas than the average well pad in the US – something the author doesn’t even seem to consider.

    The fact that they simply cite the CfD market as an adequate measuring tool for assessing the difference between the various technologies shows how out to lunch these people are. Those markets would take into account any of the costs that UKOOG brings up re network impact and back up power.

    • ‘ They opine on shale gas costs in the UK vs. the US without having any supporting evidence to back their claims’ please tell this to the investors in your glossy brochures…

  4. Ken Cronin has no credibility what so ever. He just reads the lines on a piece of paper off his paymasters, [edited by moderator]. I see he still spouting that discourse though with the ‘heat for homes’ one that’s been exposed to the fake news that it is. [edited by moderator]

  5. Considering how shale costs in USA have been adjusted so quickly and significantly, and how no shale gas extraction has even started in the UK as yet, how silly to start speculating on costs. If there is no firm ground for costs the past errors made within USA regarding economics will be perpetuated, and this report shows exactly that. I would be more interested if this had been conducted once fracking had really been tested in UK. Without that, it is based upon sand, not shale.

  6. Must spend $41 and read it.
    I know the Coal/bottled gas/wood chap and those who work for him, the heating oil delivery company, a few people from the biomass powerstation ( mostly in bunkhouses in-and out of the EU via Robin Hood airport), and smattering of those who work for EON and EDF for the large coal fired plants ( and small gas plant and up and coming grid balancing battery banks ). I know electricians, gas engineers and so on and guys who work for National Grid.

    But I know of no one who works with solar panels. Might be because the roof rush is over and employment in that aspect has dropped. The companies who fitted them were not local, but the scaffolders were ( as it was naff scaffolding if any ).

    Hence the figures on employment for solar look interesting. Must read more!

  7. Not surprised it’s one of the least sustainable energy fuels. It’s a finite resource, expensive and environmentally hazardous to extract, the process depletes fresh water by several millions of gallons (per well) which is non-returnable to clean water reserves, and taking any given well the decline curve of output from the moment of fracking is steep – around 60% of recoverable gas is gone in the first year – until the next stage or frack – it relies on a never ending process of (ongoing) fracking and drilling. A text-book example of non-renewable!

    • Non renewable and yet you rely on it every single solitary day, Philip. And if it’s too expensive, then the capital markets simply won’t underwrite it. Ta da! When you don’t have government subsidies, you don’t have to worry about costs as they are borne by private investors!

  8. And how frequently do you need to replace solar panels, PhilipP? A text-book case of frequently renewable.

    • Only if you want to upgrade to the latest models Martin. .. which makes economic and environmental sense. Meanwhile prices keep falling per unit of energy – for both panels and backup storage.

  9. Sorry, PhilipP, that is factually incorrect. Try Giggling the lifespan for solar panels. You will find projections (pretty short) and many references to indications that those lifespans are predicted to be lower than originally projected. That relates to both industrial and domestic systems.

    In what world does any product left out in all weathers not require replacement? The antis do inhabit a strange parallel world. (I do recall one of the first posts of 2018, from an anti, proposing the year should centre on logic. Doesn’t seem to be going well.)

    • Not for your side. Magnifying trivial diversions in the hope of scoring the odd point here and there is I guess logical – your kind of logic. Far be it from me to keep you from your comfort zone but there are bigger issues at stake.

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