Scotland says nae to fracking, aye to solar

Edinburgh’s International Book Festival hosted over the weekend an energy debate addressing the question whether Scotland and the United Kingdom need fracking to keep the lights on.

In the debate, Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who argued against the controversial natural gas extraction method, took on Zoe Shipton, professor of geology at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University, who argued in favor of the technique.

The fracking debate and the role of renewables

The Edinburgh debate summed up the main arguments revolving around fracking technology but most significantly exposed the Scottish energy policy landscape.

In brief, Dixon argued that fracking was not necessary at all in Scotland, which has achieved a high penetration of renewable energy in its energy mix and aims at 100% of electricity production from renewables by 2020.

In 2002, Dixon said, the Scottish Environment Ministry set a target to generate 17.5% of electricity in Scotland from renewables by 2010. Scotland was then generating only around 5% of its electricity from hydro and by 2010 had surpassed its target. The country now has a target to achieve 50% of electricity generation from renewables next year and this is also going to be surpassed given that last year Scotland generated 46% of its electricity from renewables. So in policy terms, there is not much space left to develop fracking in Scotland, Dixon pointed out.

Furthermore, Dixon said, the Scottish government’s answer to a recent U.K. government consultation regarding fracking residential drilling rules was rather clear. The U.K. government is currently consulting on plans which would make it easier for firms to drill under residential areas, giving them automatic access rights for drilling at a depth of more than 300 metres. In return, local communities would receive a one-off payment of £20,000 ($33,163) for each horizontal well of more than 200 meters in length. The Scottish government replied to the consultation that it needed more evidence regarding the risks of fracking and that it would also need to further consult the country’s citizens, Dixon said.

Shipton, on the contrary, argued that the process would be reasonably safe if the U.K. decided to go forward on exploring its underground shale formations and extracting its shale gas. The process of fracking, Shipton said, involved pumping water very deep underground to break apart rocks and release some of the gas they contain. However, to make the fracking process more efficient, chemicals are almost certainly always pumped together with water, while the released gas might sometimes contain natural radioactive materials, and this, she added, was perhaps why the public was often so polarized.

There are health concerns regarding the materials reaching the surface together with the shale gas, but these concerns are often exaggerated, Shipton argued, reminding the audience that "there is no form of energy the British public has not objected to in some way."

Should the U.K. need to judge the dangers of the fracking process on human health and the environment, there are two factors that need to be examined: how much of the chemicals is being released into the atmosphere and how much of it enters people’s bodies. Quantities in both cases are very low to have an effect, Shipton argued.

The debate intensified when Dixon cited a U.S. study that raised concerns about the fracking effects on human fertility and Shipton argued that a high number of research studies is needed before safe, science-based conclusions could be reached.

Dixon fired back, making the case that instead of spending public funds to research the risks of fracking on the environment and human health as well as expose the public to an array of risks ranging from health problems to the value of their property, the country should rather invest in renewables that have proven safe and workable.

Wave and solar PV are Scotland’s next big thing

Scotland already generates a very high amount of its energy from wind, Dixon said, adding that if Scotland invested adequately in wave energy and solar PV it could reach its 2020 goal with ease and set a world leading example. The Scottish government had at least sent a clear signal to the fracking industry that Scotland was a place where it will be much harder to do business, Dixon added.

Whlie the U.K.’s energy policy is an issue overseen by Westminster, environment, health and planning policies are handled in Edinburgh and are the responsibility of the Scottish government. Thus, there are often tensions between the U.K. and Scottish governments when they pursue different energy policy agendas.

Asked by pv magazine specifically about the solar PV sector in Scotland, Dixon replied that "due to the Scottish weather, solar energy is something Scottish policy makers didn’t pay adequate attention to in the past and that is changing now. Because of solar PV currently doing so well in England and Germany and the price of solar modules has been reduced significantly, policy makers and the public in Scotland have start to realize the great potential of this technology. I believe we will soon experience the growth of the Scottish solar PV sector and most possibly this will be initiated by city councils and some Scottish Universities that will develop solar arrays on the rooftops of buildings and empty sites, setting an example that will then be followed wider."

Asked by pv magazine about the amount of energy the U.K. could eventually generate from its own shale gas, Shipton said this was enormously difficult to estimate. "Firstly we need to estimate how much shale gas exists in underground formations and then how much we can extract. Both these estimates depend on a number of variables that differ per geographic areas. In the U.S., for example, we have learned that different wells in different areas have totally different performances. If we choose to know about it, we need to undertake explorative drilling around the country and collect evidence."

The 31st Edinburgh International Book Festival runs August 9-25 and includes more than 700 events. Energy debates were a natural part of this year’s Edinburgh Book and Politics Festivals but has also dominated all public debates currently taking place in Scotland and concerning the country’s referendum on September 18 that will decide whether or not it will remain part of the UK.