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Peter Rolton, Interview with BBC Radio Northampton

News broke this week of a report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in which the potential for shale gas exploitation in the UK was put under extreme scrutiny; in particular, the level of emphasis that has been placed on fracking as some sort of silver bullet for energy issues has been fiercely criticised.

14th November 2014    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

Professor Jim Watson, UKERC research director states:

“It’s extraordinary that ministers keep making these statements. They clearly want to create a narrative. But we are researchers – we deal in facts, not narratives. And at the moment there is no evidence on how shale gas will develop in the UK… Shale gas has been completely oversold. Where ministers got this rhetoric from I have absolutely no idea. It’s very misleading for the public.”

Given that several political parties have leaned very heavily on shale as a panacea for the UK’s energy woes, this paper must surely come as a wake-up call to those who think we will find our way out of the coming energy shortage by relying on a single, convenient solution.

Last week I was interviewed on BBC Radio Northampton to discuss exactly why this isn’t and shouldn’t be the case:

The options for UK generation:

‘It’s a bit like the advice people get given about what to do with their savings; you need a good mix, you don’t really want to have all your eggs in one basket. We’ve got renewable technologies that harness nature, such as solar and wind, which is of course great until the wind doesn’t blow and the sun isn’t shining; your renewable mix and your energy mix on the grid need to go across a broad spectrum. The other really important point here for UK PLC is energy security: we need to be thinking not just about the generation of our own energy from renewable sources but also how we get ourselves moved to a situation where we’re not as dependent as we are at the moment or are going to become on fuel coming in from abroad. I know at the moment Centrica is predicting 70% dependency on imported gas by 2020 and that gas of course comes from places like Russia and Qatar, which are not the most stable parts of the world or indeed the parts where we necessarily have the best political relations.’

‘So we’ve got things like solar and wind energy, which, as you say, have to be part of a mix. Is there anything else available to us other than gas, coal, and nuclear?’

‘Well, yes there is and in fact what’s starting to come to the fore now is the use of advanced combustion technologies to replace what I would call the old, traditional waste-to-energy technologies. There’s a technology called gasification where you can actually generate electricity and heat by combusting fuels such as waste wood and refuse derived fuel (RDF). This is where you have the proportion of refuse or rubbish that can’t be recycled, so you recycle first but inevitably you’re left with a proportion that can’t be re-used and currently that goes to landfill; that actually can be turned into useful, clean energy through clean combustion processes. It hasn’t been done much so far in the UK but it’s very much coming in and the Government has started to incentivise these types of technology quite heavily.’

‘What about fracking? That’s been in the news a lot recently.’

‘Fracking is something that’s had quite an impact in the States; there they’ve discovered large fracking resources and it’s led to a cheap energy boom. It’s very prominent in the UKIP energy policy, which is based almost entirely around the use of fracking as an alternative to renewables. I think what we have to bear in mind with fracking, as was my point at the start of this conversation, is it’s inevitably going to have its place in the mix but it is not going to be an answer to everything, there is no magic bullet. Fracking in the UK is still very much untried; it’s one thing to start fracking out in the States where you’ve got a lotmore space, you’re not as densely populated so the impacts, such as they are, are not going to affect the community as much because they’re further away. You start fracking in the UK and you are inevitably going to be under somebody.’

‘There seems to be a lot of opposition to anything new that’s introduced: to solar farms, to wind farms, to fracking. Why are we so against these new technologies?’

‘We live in a congested country, I think that’s part of it, and unfortunately we have a bit of a habit in this country of being very good at saying what we don’t want and not perhaps quite as good at saying what we do want. A little reality check on this is that you may have seen this week the National Grid and OfGem were talking about the lack of energy capacity in the system this Christmas and we are down to somewhere between about 2 and 5 per cent spare capacity; anyone in business, if you run your business on that sort of safety margin, you probably want to look at yourself because that is really tight and nobody wants to be sat in the dark on Christmas day with a cold turkey in the oven. We need to wake up and get our heads around the fact that we do need more generation capacity on the grid, that’s the first thing, and we need to have all these technologies coming into play. Planning is an issue, they do need to be placed in the right place and a lot of people have had opposition to wind turbines and wind farms; I think it is fair to say that some of the early placement of those sorts of pieces of technology was poor, was too close to people’s houses, and did cause problems. Planning now, however, having been through this process myself, is pretty rigorous around making sure the impact of these things is properly controlled. There is a much, much bigger piece here and that is that as a generation we have gone through a process of using up the world’s resources at a fairly scary rate of knots and whilst what’s out there at the moment will probably safely see people like myself out, what really concerns me is what’s coming for the next generation and the generation behind them. Really we have to make that change from where we are now into a proper, low carbon economy, which means fundamentally replacing the infrastructure of the UK over a period of time. There is also one other important point here I’d want to bring in, which is the Government is quite rightly starting to talk now about smart grids. It’s much more prevalent in Europe, in places like Germany, but really now every household in the UK now pretty much has some form of internet connection so the ability is there now to start having intelligent management of energy in a property linked to when generation is available. To give you an analogy: the National Grid is like a hose pouring into a bucket that has holes in and pours water to consumers. There is no link between that water going in and the water coming out in terms of how it’s controlled, they keep the bucket topped up but when and how the water comes out is purely dictated by the consumer. What needs to happen is that when we have lots of wind or lots of sun and we’re able to generate energy in a cost-effective manner, i.e. for free, and have it surplus on the grid, you want to be able to go round people’s houses on the internet and have the ability to turn on and top up things like thermal stores or hot water cylinders while they’re out at work but do it cheaply. It’s the supply and demand relationship, not a time of day / tariff relationship and that is an absolutely fundamental shift we need to make. We need to generate energy from nature, and when it’s available in abundance and is cheap, we need to be able to get it out to consumers cheaply rather than at the moment everything you pay for is all based on the time of day.

‘Let me hand you a crystal ball, Peter; in 20 seconds, tell me how we will be getting our energy in 50 years’ time.’

‘In fifty years’ time the traditional, dirty fuels like coal will have gone, they’ll no longer be part of the mix. We’ll have gas still, but it’ll be descending not ascending; nuclear will be there because it’ll need to make up the hard yards when nature’s not playing ball. I would like to see that we still have solar, we still have wind, but what I’d really like to see is a lot more use of clean waste-to-energy technologies based around RDF and waste wood and I’d also like to see the emerging technologies of tidal and marine coming in as well.’

Subsequent to this interview, Peter was invited to appear again on BBC Radio Northampton to discuss the Northampton Community Energy Scheme with presenter Rob Adcock; their discussion can be found here.

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