Is Fracking the Energy Solution we are looking for?

One of the big new energy alternatives is fracking. The name actually refers to the technique which is used to extract some oil and mainly gas from underground. These are then used to fuel power stations. The whole industry has been hugely criticised by members of the public.

As a green solution, fracking is obviously not the perfect solution. Although gas has less emissions than coal when it is burned, if any escapes into the air it can do immediate damage to the ozone layer. This is something which is highly controlled though and is unlikely to be a huge problem. Many people feel that it is not a good enough step towards clean energy and think that money should be being spent on greener solutions than this.

Fracking

There are also those people who are worried about the risks of fracking on the local environment. There a have been cases in the US which have worried many people. Legislation there does not permit companies that are fracking to publicise what chemicals they are using underground to extract the gas. As these chemicals can include acid and other poisons this is a cause for concern, particularly if the local water supply is breached by the drilling and the chemicals leach into it. This has been a big problem in the US as there is no map of where the old mines and wells are underground and so it makes the drilling process difficult and prone to errors. IN the UK this would not be a problem as things are well mapped out. There are also guidelines and legislations with regards to the chemicals that can be used and they have to be made public. Another case for concern is earthquakes. Drilling under the ground in the manner that fracking does, will cause earth tremors. However, if things are properly controlled and they are not near to built up errors it may not be a problem. Obviously the long term effects cannot be easily measured.

One big advantage of fracking for the UK is energy security. We will be able to produce our own energy which means that we will not have to rely on other countries for it. This should help to keep prices down but also means that if a supply is interrupted form another country then it will not have such a devastating effect. Fracking is also deemed to be cheaper than green alternatives and many people just cannot afford to pay more for their energy.

It is worth trying to ignore all the protests and highly emotive arguments around fracking and look at the facts for yourself. If you feel we should be moving towards completely green solutions, then obviously this is not the best one. However, it does move away from dirtier coal and oil and could be considered to be a step in the right direction. However, if it does go ahead in the UK, it would need to be very carefully monitored to make sure that safety always comes first.

Why are we not Using Green Power Alternatives?

There are many green power alternatives available as well as new ones being researched into. However, there are disadvantages with many of them and they may not all be as green as they seem.

It would seem obvious that if we want to address climate change, that we should just switch all energy to green. It is not that easy though, with such a high demand for energy it is difficult to find the resources to provide green alternatives, particularly in the short term. It is worth remembering that many green sources of power are not constant. For example solar, wind and tidal energy is not being produced all of the time. This means that there needs to be an alternative for when there is no power being produced. Storing power to use when it is not being produced, sounds like an obvious solution, but there needs to be the resources to store it and the space to put these big storage batteries or whatever they may be.

Green Power

Green energy solutions are also not that efficient at the moment. Look at solar panels, for example. If you cover a four bedroom house with eight panels, there will not be enough energy produced to cover half of the fuel bill. As the technology improves then this will become better and it is likely that eventually a home could easily get enough energy form a few panels. However, at the moment the technology is expensive and the money that you save in fuel, does not cover the cost of the panels, installation and maintenance. The UK fuel companies, led by the government, had been offering payments to people producing green energy to make it more worthwhile for them to produce it themselves but these payments are getting smaller. There is also the problem that solar panels contain chemicals which are not good for the environment and so when they reach the end of their life, they need to be very carefully destroyed.

There are also problems with getting permission to provide green energy. Many people do not like the look of solar or wind farms and so protest about them appearing on their local landscape. Some countries do not have the right weather in order to take advantage of these either.

There is also more work going into geothermal energy, to take advantage of heat below the earths crust. This is not economically viable at the moment but work is being done to try to make it so. Biomass is the burning of plant waste material to produce heat, but they produce poisonous gases which contribute to air pollution. Heat pumps are an efficient way to warm or cool air for homes and are more efficient than electric heaters and coolers therefore reducing the amount of power needed to fuel them. At the moment these are expensive.

These are just a few of the alternatives available to replace coal as an energy source. However, you can see that they all have disadvantage which mean that it is not easy to switch over to them. It is also worth remembering that as coal use reduces, the coal industry goes into decline and that has an impact on employment in areas that rely on mining as a big source of employment. We have seen this in the UK in the past and it will become more of a problem in the future.

Are Coal Power Stations Still Relevant?

All of this protesting, the rise of renewable energy and climate change all bring forward the question as to whether coal powered energy stations are actually relevant any more. It is a highly debated issue and many people have very strong feelings on the issue. It is important to understand all of the arguments though.

Coal as a resource is becoming harder to obtain and we are using it up. The easy to access supplies were mined long ago and so it is getting more difficult to get access to the coal that remains. This means that it is becoming more expensive to use coal as a fuel source. There are also the issues of how dirty the coal is with regards to the sooty smoke that it produces as well as the harmful gases which do damage to the environment. However, it still has some advantage over alternatives.

Coal Power Stations

We have been using coal for a long time and we know how to mine it and use it to produce power easily. This means that with regards to knowledge, it is a cheap energy source. Many countries enjoy being able to use energy that they can get from their own country which is called energy security. Therefore some countries may rely on coal because it is a resource that they can easily get hold of. However, the UK no longer mines very much coal and most of the coal that it uses is imported.

It costs a lot of money to replace a power station. There is usually a lot of talk about location and what will fuel it. Most options cause opposition from local people as well as protest groups and this can mean that things get delayed and maybe even cancelled as in the case of Kingsnorth coal power station. This can put off companies from changing their power stations to new ones, which are likely to be more efficient and less damaging to the environment, even if they use energy that is not considered to be green or considered to be dangerous, such as nuclear fuel. It is often the case that power stations are not replaced or that they are replaced at the last minute, because of these issued.

As to whether coal power stations are still relevant that will depend on the growth of alternatives. We are demanding more and more energy to heat and light our homes and power all of our gadgets which means that all resources need to be considered by the power generating companies. They will look to the cheapest solutions if they can in order that fuel bills do not rocket in cost. It can be a difficult balance, with pressure from the EU to keep emissions down and work towards negating climate change, but with the public demanding cheap fuel prices. The public do have a choice to buy fuel from companies that only invest in green energy but many people cannot afford to take that option.

Kingsnorth Coal Power Station

Kingsnorth power station, located at the Hoo Peninsula, Medway in Kent generated energy form 1973 to 2012. It was decommissioned due to an EU directive which stated that a power stations that did not have Flue Gas Desulphurisation technology be closed down after 20,000 hours of operation or by the end of 2015. The hours of use meant that the station had to close in 2012.

The owners of the power station, EON, decided that they would build a replacement power station at the site. These would also be coal fired units, like the old power station but they would have less emissions than the old units in the decommissioned power station, claiming that they would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20%. They were also planning to make them capture ready meaning that there would be carbon capture and storage. However, there were many people in opposition to the station being built.

Kingsnorth Coal Power Station

Many charities and societies that protect the environment were against the development. Greenpeace, WWF, RSPB and even Christian Aid, among others were against the building for the new power stations. Many complained that there was no place for coal burning power stations when climate change is such a problem, saying that more renewable sources should be used. There were also a number of high publicity protests. Greenpeace protestors broke into the power station in October 2007 and painted the word ‘Gordon’ on the chimney, having planned to write ‘Gordon bin it’ but got stopped by a high court injunction before they could complete the damage, which was estimated to have cost EON £30,000. The ‘Kingsnorth six’ as the prosecuted were dubbed, were acquitted in court after arguing that they were trying to close down the power station because they were trying to prevent climate change, which would cause greater damage to property than they had caused. In August 2008 there was a Camp for Climate Action held near to the power station and 50 people tried to break in and were arrested. In October 2008 Greenpeace activists managed to occupy part of the power station using their boat rainbow Warrior to access the site. There was a standoff between protestor and security staff until a high court injunction was issued for their removal. In November 2008 a protestor managed to enter the plant and shut it down for four hours. In June 2009 Greenpeace activists boarded a ship which was loaded to deliver coal to the power station.

One of the big problems was the government’s consultation on Carbon Capture and Storage. They were, at the time, looking into this and the power station was doing to be used in a bid for the government’s competition for this. They did well with this, having reached a prequalification stage along with three other proposals. However, in March 2009 it was decided, by the government, that the decision about the power station would be delayed. Just a month later the chief executive of EON explained that without commercial carbon capture there was no point in them going ahead with the development. The project was then postponed until at least 2016.

The Smart Grid

A Smart Grid is an intelligent electricity network. Unlike the older, ordinary grid system, the Smart Grid monitors can respond to changes in the outflow of electricity. This means that the provider is able to calibrate the consumption of electricity in the grid in order to achieve economical and eco-friendly ends.

Monitors located in the transmission, distribution and consumption elements across the grid send information from electricity users back to the source which then responds by either reducing or increasing power to the area. Significantly, alternative or ‘green’ power sources can be integrated into the system in order to compensate for conventional appliances which might be disabled in the interest of load shedding.

A good communications infrastructure is indispensable to the successful operation of any Smart Grid. It is the capacity to send signals back and forth across the grid that renders the system so intelligent, sensitive and adaptable. Smart Grid Communications thus need to be well-made, resilient and enduring.

Key to the success of a Smart Grid communications system is its capacity to withstand difficult climactic conditions. Electric utility substations are often beset by bad weather including rain, snow and hail, and as a result, the equipment housed in these needs to be hardy.

The Smart Grid, capable of monitoring its own health and adjusting the distribution of electricity throughout the network, is a leap forward in science terms. However, as with much modern technology, it is still plagued with elemental problems. In order to function, a hard-wearing communications infrastructure which can withstand weather of all kinds is, without a doubt, a necessity.

Can Individuals help the Energy Problem?

You may be wondering what you can do personally to help the energy problem. You may feel that you have very little influence, but actually there are a number of things that you can do which could have quite an impact, particularly on you and your family’s carbon footprint.

There are energy companies that only invest in green energy. You will have to pay more for your gas and electric bills if you sign up to one of these, but you will know that the money that you are paying will be invested into green energy. If you check out the websites of the energy suppliers, they will supply a breakdown of where their energy comes from so that you can make a choice. You may decide to go with one that is slightly cheaper but has a larger percentage of green energy.

Energy Problem

Producing your own energy could help as well. You may be able to install a ground source heat pump, windmill or solar panels in order to produce some of your own energy. This can be expensive and you will need to be prepared to invest a significant sum of money into a project like this. There will be savings in the amount of energy that you have to pay for and you may be able to claim a Feed in Tariff from your energy supplier as well to help cover the costs. It could work out well as an investment, if you have the capital to put down in the first place. Of course, you also need to own a house and/or land in order to do this and you may need to get planning permission. In the UK some companies still fit solar panels for free. They will take the Feed in Tariff but you can not only benefit from savings on your electricity bill but also know that you are helping to produce some green energy. These companies are becoming less common though so if you want to do this you may need to get started as soon as possible.

You can also help by using energy saving products. This can be anything from light bulbs to white goods. When you need to replace any items, look into whether they are energy saving or not. Often energy saving light bulbs are more expensive but they are much efficient with regards to the energy they use and last a lot longer so in lifetime cost they will work out very much cheaper in the long term.

Another way to help the energy problem is to use less. Make sure that you do not put lights on unnecessarily and leave them on when you leave the room. Do not leave televisions and computers running overnight and use your electrical items sparingly. Do not put on washing machines and dishwashers unless they are full and only run a tumble dryer if you cannot get the clothing dry another way. You could also consider things like using solar torches, calculators, phone chargers etc which will reduce the energy that you use.

So even if you cannot afford to switch to a green energy supplier or produce your own energy you can still do your bit by trying to reduce energy use and buying more energy efficient appliances.