Fracking debate distracting government from cheap, lower carbon energy

There have been street protests and general unease as the reality of drilling and fracking for gas in the UK starts to bite. Recently a member of the House of Lords, Lord Howells said the North East was “desolate” and ripe for fracking as protesters took to the streets in  Balcombe, West Sussex, campaigning against the energy company Cuadrilla, which is testing for shale gas in the area.

Both PM, David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have expressed enthusiasm for fracking and more licences are expected to be granted for at least exploratory drilling to take place. While stories emanate from the US about the health issues of gas and chemicals entering the water supply there appears to be little hard evidence that properly done fracking causes health problems. The real issue is that the heated debate is distracting government from cheaper, lower carbon energy sources such as organic biogas, making the UK miss out on up to £3bn a year and tens of thousands of jobs.

Figures from the government and the biogas industry show that generating gas from waste can produce cheaper energy in the short term with fewer carbon emissions than current controversial hydraulic fracturing projects.

Alan Whitehead, a Labour MP who sits on the energy and climate select committee, said: “This coalition seems to have an obsession with fracking, to the exclusion of other possibilities, and despite the very clear issues with fracking and the opposition we’ve seen from local communities. It is very short-sighted.”

Whitehead said the current incentives for biogas should be bolstered. “The government is not putting enough behind this. There is a lot at stake and a lot of potential here, but the coalition seems to prefer shale gas, even though it is problematic, than this cheap and readily available form of fuel.”

Estimates from the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises parliament, show that at least one in 20 of the UK’s homes could be supplied with gas from biomass and waste by 2020.

The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association, the industry trade body, calculates that this could be doubled, and a tenth of the UK’s domestic gas needs could be supplied by biogas, given the UK’s resources in waste and agricultural products.

Using biogas from waste could save the UK at least 7.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, according to Matthew Hindle, policy manager at the ADBA. That is because the waste would otherwise be sent to landfill or, as it decomposes, release methane – a greenhouse gas 25 to 30 times more powerful than CO2.

Fracking, by contrast, requires substantial amounts of energy to release gas from dense underground rocks, and some of the gas is likely to be flared rather than captured.

Hindle contrasted the government’s response to fracking – setting up a new agency, the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, to support the industry – with the lack of political interest in biogas, which is rarely mentioned by ministers.

One reason biogas has received less attention is that it falls between three government departments – energy, environment and communities and local government.

At present, according to estimates from the government’s Waste Resource and Action Programme, the UK throws away 15m tonnes of food waste a year, from homes, industry and retail. Only about 1m tonnes of the waste is used to generate biogas, or methane, using anaerobic digestion – techniques that are well-established in other parts of the world. This diverts resources to landfill and gives rise to greenhouse gas emissions, because the rotting food produces methane that is not captured and adds to the concentration of carbon in the air.

About 90m tonnes of animal waste is also produced in the UK each year, only a tiny portion of which is used for energy production. Sewage treatment plants are also overlooked. Biogas can be poured into the national gas grid and used for heating homes, burned to generate electricity, or used in specially adapted vehicles.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, said: “Anaerobic digestion needs to be locally based and ideally community or locally owned, rather than having a few large-scale facilities. [Biogas and other renewables] are the energy sources of the 21st century. Fossil fuels are 20th-century dinosaurs – fracking would cause significant local environmental damage, cannot fit within our essential carbon emission limits to avoid catastrophic climate change, and would lock us into future high cost and volatile household energy bills.”

In 2010-11, there were more than 2,600 jobs in the biogas sector, which could also be turned to at least 35,000 green jobs with the necessary investment, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But there are currently only 40 megawatts-worth of new projects under construction and a similar number awaiting planning permission. Projects capable of producing a further 180MW have been given the go-ahead. That would be enough to double current production, however this is still tiny compared to a typical fossil fuel power station. Drax, the UK’s largest coal plant has a capacity of just under 4,000MW.

Gas from organic sources is, according to people in the biogas industry, slightly cheaper than imported fossil gas, in part because of government incentives. But fracking may prove to be more expensive in the UK. Cuadrilla has already poured £100m into fracking in three years, so far without producing any gas.

More information here: Fracking push blinding government to greener energy, say campaigners

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