The rapid expansion of fracking, from something to nothing in short order is possible. There is no certainty, as the Guardian tells us, that fracking will not be viable in Britain for at least a decade. To see this we must consider the case of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is an American state with a population that is one fifth of Britain’s, and a total surface area of just under half of Britain’s. In 2008, it essentially produced no shale gas. Well, it produced 9,757 million cubic feet each year according to official statistics; cubic feet being a unit designed to inhibit understanding.
Yet, by 2013 it was producing 3,048,182 million cubic feet each year, a factor of 300 increase in 5 years. In other words, Pennsylvania’s annual shale gas output went from zero to above Britain’s current annual consumption (2,581, 790 million cubic feet according to BP) in half a decade. A true dash for gas.
In total, Pennsylvania now has around seven thousand active shale gas wells. So, that’s a number to keep in mind when politicians or activists are chucking claims around about the number of fracking wells need to supply Britain’s needs.
Less than ten thousand. This is a number that many will use to heighten NIMBY opposition to fracking. But, let’s imagine it works, and people say no to living near fracking wells. Who wants the disruption? Who wants their view ruined?
In the place of fracking wells, these people will then be told to accept the erection of skyscaper sized steel towers. Towers that have moving parts, and make noises that supposedly bother your sleep. And they will not have to accept ten thousand of them, but many more.
Let’s do some basic calculations.
Britain’s annual demand for natural gas is now 851 TWh. In power terms this is 97 GW, on average. Let’s imagine that we wanted to replace all of that with wind energy. How many wind turbines would it take? I will assume, generously, that all of this natural gas is used to generate electricity, and that this electricity generation is roughly 50% efficient.
We therefore need enough wind turbines to average 50 GW of output. A typical wind turbine in a big onshore wind farm is something like 2 to 2.5 MW in capacity. However, their output is lower than the rated capacity. The wind does not always blow, and so the average onshore wind farm in Britain has capacity factor of around 27%. I’ll say that it is 33%, and bump up the capacity of a typical turbine to 3 MW. A typical turbine therefore has average output of 1 MW. (A GW being a gigawatt or a billion watts. A MW being a megawatt or a million watts. A TWh is a trillion watt hours. And, if this is the first time you’ve seen someone tell you the definition of these numbers, then you should ask questions about the calibre of journalism about energy.)
Getting the number of turbines to supply 50 GW is then a simple question of dividing two numbers. In total, you would need around 50,000. And remember my generosity in the calculation.
Say no to one fracking well, and say yes to ten wind turbines.
Is this a decision that the British, with their mythical views of the countryside, are likely to take? Hardly.
Now, I am not in any way arguing for fracking, simply laying out some unavoidable facts. A massive expansion of renewable energy and of NIMBYism are mutually exclusive. Drumming up local opposition, in the delusional hope that similar sentiments will not be applied wind farms – they will – is not a rational strategy. As Saul Bellow observed, “ there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining”.
The age of renewable energy sprawl is upon us, and the age when opponents of fossil fuels should rely on NIMBYism to help their cause is over.