Last reviewed 3 April 2012

Necessity is intensifying the hunt for novel energy resources, both renewable and non-sustainable. But hard decisions could have long consequences. Jon Herbert explains further.

A balance of power

The prospect of no lighting or heating concentrates the mind wonderfully. As with death, so with power; apologies to Dr Johnson.

The range of energy options that could be available may present Europe and the UK with a potential dilemma. As a matter of policy, what matters more? Cutting carbon? Developing renewable energy sources? Or costs at a time of austerity?

Until recently, it was assumed that all three were mutually compatible. However, the rapidly rising cost of energy reflects an underlying nervousness about markets that could make compromises tempting. There are at least three untapped carbon-based resources that might keep the lights burning. However, there are also potentially huge “green” alternatives that could be developed with more money and political determination.

What has changed?

Oil prices are rising on the back of Middle East tensions. Could the busy waters of the Straits of Hormuz be closed to tanker traffic? Increasing petrol pain at the pumps being felt by motorists, and industry, highlights the dependency of economic recovery to vulnerable imported energy. High oil prices are recessionary and inflationary.

What are the unsustainable solutions?

Tar sands, a new case for shale gas and, as a long shot, the enormous volumes of sea-bottom methane hydrates that some energy companies are now looking to exploit. All are “old” carbon.

Canada has some 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, much of it in tar sands. The problem for Europe and America is that tar sands are a fossil fuel and take some 19% more energy to process than sweet North Sea crude. Compared to 87.5 grams of carbon per megajoule for conventional oil, tar sands require 107 grams. The EU seems set to reject tar sands as incompatible with its CO2 reduction targets. President Obama is keen to put any decision off until after November’s election; the Republicans support tar sands.

Meanwhile, Canada, which withdrew from the Kyoto process in December citing excessive costs for its citizens, plans to produce some 5.1 million barrels a day by 2035. Saudi Arabia currently produces 10.7 million. As Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, points out: “If the world doesn’t want our oil, it doesn’t have to buy our oil”. But his country is in accord with China which now owns a Canadian oil sands producer. If Europeans are not prepared to use “dirty” tar sands, others surely will.

Shale gas “fracking” has quickly earned itself a bad pollution name. But would well-regulated fracking be acceptable? A recent study suggests that the industry, already maturing in the US, is no more prone to environmental groundwater damage than other oil and gas drilling. There are also reported to be copious reserves under Lancashire.

Methane hydrates are also associated with disaster. Formed from decaying animal matter held loosely by water pressure at depth across many parts of the ocean, sub-sea landslide evidence suggests that they are easily dislodged in great volume. This is one explanation for the loss of ships and aircraft in the Bermuda Triangle. However, enterprising energy companies are now considering whether methane hydrates could be exploited — very, very carefully.

Greener by far

The sustainable side of the coin depends on how imaginative humans can be in searching out latent energy from the sun. By one definition, the Earth is a giant battery storing past sunlight. But disentangling “old” carbon from energy is proving difficult.

Britain clearly has a lead in wave and tidal technology that some are fearful could be easily lost. The Government is keen to set up a marine energy park stretching from the West Country to the Scilly Isles. The aim of the park, announced recently by Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, would be to bring into close proximity technologists, researchers, universities, venture capitalists and energy companies to kick-start massive energy innovations. Scottish and Welsh projects are also part of the mix.

Meanwhile, harnessing the inexhaustible energy of tides has taken a major step forward with the awarding of a clean environmental bill of health for the first commercial tidal current generators at Ireland’s Strangford Lough. By one estimate, marine renewables could supply some 20% of current levels of UK electricity demand. Seven out of eight large-scale tidal prototypes are being trialled in UK waters. There is concern that Britain should not let this initiative drift overseas in the way that wind power now centres on Denmark and Germany.

Growing seaweed not for food but for energy is another long-term option that could be less exotic than it sounds. As a bio-crop, seaweed cultivation is now proven in Asia where it is labour intensive. If the economic model can be proven in the west, it is feasible that extensive crops could be cultivated in British waters.

Considerable work has also been done to harvest energy from the seas in two further “green” ways. One would exploit the osmatic pressure difference between fresh and salt water to produce hydraulic power. The other is looking at the electrical potential between salty and fresh water — in other words, a battery.

At the same time, two possible distractions may have entered the ring. A US-led, six-nation UN initiative aims to curb climate change by reducing short-lived warming agents, namely methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons. Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Bangladesh and Ghana have signed up to the scheme, which will tackle basic but extensive problems such as changing farming methods to cut methane emissions from rice paddy fields, efficient cooking stoves for African and South Asia, plus upgrading landfill sites and wastewater treatment plant to capture methane. Black carbon increases the Earth’s absorption of solar energy. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. The problem is that these measures are known to delay global warming but not prevent it; a focus on reducing CO2 will pay greater dividends half a century hence.

The second is a controversial report, widely criticised, which suggests that abandoning renewable targets, and wind turbine in particular, in favour of more nuclear and cheap gas will enable the UK to meet its CO2 reduction and energy security targets much more cheaply. The findings are said to come from a study by one of the Government’s energy advisors and suggest that at least £34 billion could be saved by 2020, and up to £150 billion by 2050, if plans to build up to 32,000 heavily subsidised wind turbines were dropped.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commented that the study’s “assumptions are so flawed the conclusions are near pointless”. According to DECC, an assumption that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which the Government is keen to promote, would be in widespread use was inappropriate. Also, the importance of jobs created in the renewable sector and supply security issues were not taken into adequate account. Others challenge long-term assumptions about a stable oil and gas price. The big unknown is how much electrical power Britain will need in future. The recession is blamed for much of a substantial fall in consumption since 2001. A strategic move for the widespread introduction of electric cars could reverse the trend. Meeting renewable targets within this timeframe really will be challenging now. The circa 7% of “green” power generated today will have to rise to 30% very quickly.

Reasonable rises

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recently apportioned the sharp rise in fuel bills largely to higher wholesale gas prices. It expects typical combined household gas and electricity bills to rise from £1060 to £1250 by 2020, though with the caveat that domestic thermal insulation could cut the cost to £1085.

The CCC has analysed the impact of investing in wind, nuclear and carbon capture and concluded that investment costs were “significantly” outweighed by benefits. Chief Executive David Kennedy said claims that energy bills were “through the roof” because of green investment were clearly wrong. Nor will low-carbon spending in the coming decade drive bills to “astronomical levels”.

Negative effect

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has also criticised the Government for placing a minimum price on industry for carbon emissions. It predicts a ‘”devastating effect” on UK industry and a rise in power costs.

In a report on the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), MPs worried that while the UK’s policy would lower UK emissions, other countries would simply increase their own. Committee Chairman Tim Yeo, MP, warned that the Treasury’s decision to set a carbon floor price could encourage industry and electricity generators to move overseas. “The Chancellor was right to say we won’t save the planet by putting the UK out of business,” he said. The Treasury argues that it is essential to make high-carbon options more expensive to promote a low-carbon economy. The Government could raise £1.4 billion from the scheme by 2016.

Recession and reduced industrial output has seen demand for carbon credits under the EU scheme fall to £6.3 per tonne of CO2. The floor price announced by the Chancellor in March 2011 will see a minimum price of £16 by 2013. When the actual price is below the floor price, companies in the scheme must pay the difference to the Treasury.

The committee predicts that if the floor price stays low, UK industry and energy companies could pay up to £25 extra for each tonne of CO2 — a cost that will have to be carried by consumers. To prevent this, it wants to see reform of the carbon trading scheme to increase the market price.