With North Sea reserves dwindling, only a shale revolution can safeguard our national security
There are streets in London where you can feel the slight rumble of Underground trains deep below the pavement. You would have to be barefoot (not recommended) and hypersensitive, the traffic around you would have to stop (good luck with that), but you would briefly pick up something as fleeting as a butterfly’s wing. That’s the kind of nano-tremor driving nimby protesters to block exploratory fracking. A government that cares about reducing future dependence on energy imports, that cares about the national security implications of dwindling North Sea oil and gas, should embrace the shale revolution or at least test its potential. Instead, as timid as the demonstrators are loud, it straps the drillers into a ridiculously tight regulatory corset.
The planet may one day be saved by renewable energy but some of its most basic problems have not yet been resolved. Solar panels are cost competitive as a niche energy source but when deployed en masse the economics is not that convincing. The search for the perfect lithium-ion battery capable of storing solar energy is elusive. Britain has the largest installed offshore wind capacity in the world but that still accounts for only 8 per cent of our generated electricity. There’s going to have to be a substantial fossil fuel and nuclear input for at least three decades.
Each energy source has drawbacks but whatever those Lancastrian anoraks may say about the menace of earthquakes, fracking is likely to be the surest way of cutting our growing dependency on gas imports. The benefits will come not only in future pricing but also in the way that shale can transform a country’s geopolitical situation. Take the United States: the shale boom has turned it into the world’s biggest producer of crude oil. It wasn’t so long ago that Opec action could force angry motorists to queue for a day to fill up their tanks. Now the US looks set to become a net exporter of oil by 2021. And it is keen to sell its liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the world.
The security gains from this turnaround are already becoming clear and they don’t just make America safer. Poland is building an LNG terminal in the confidence that US supplies will help central Europe wean itself off Russia’s Gazprom. Tomorrow the US extends its sanctions to countries that have been buying oil from Iran — Japan, South Korea, Turkey, India and China could face difficulties trading on the American market unless they shun Tehran. Iran’s economy is predicted to contract by 6 per cent as a result, while inflation is soaring towards 40 per cent. The aim is to force concessions out of the Iranian regime and the move has been made possible only by the flexibility the US has gained through shale production.
A new paper claims the vast artificial airflow created by the world’s air conditioners could be harnessed to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, by adding or retrofitting a CO2 absorber and converter to air conditioners. But critics see a few problems with the concept.
Could Air-Conditioning Fix Climate Change?
Researchers propose a carbon-neutral “synthetic oil well” on every rooftop
A paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour. Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a developing fix for climate change—also depend on moving large volumes of air. So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?
This futuristic proposal, from a team led by chemical engineer Roland Dittmeyer at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, goes even further. The researchers imagine a system of modular components, powered by renewable energy, that would not just extract carbon dioxide and water from the air. It would also convert them into hydrogen, and then use a multistep chemical process to transform that hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The result: “Personalized, localized and distributed, synthetic oil wells” in buildings or neighborhoods, the authors write. “The envisioned model of ‘crowd oil’ from solar refineries, akin to ‘crowd electricity’ from solar panels,” would enable people “to take control and collectively manage global warming and climate change, rather than depending on the fossil power industrial behemoths.”
“This is a wonderful concept—it made my day,” says David Keith, a Harvard professor of applied physics and public policy, who was not involved in the new paper. He suggests that the best use for the resulting fuels would be to “help solve two of our biggest energy challenges”: providing a carbon-neutral fuel to fill the gaps left by intermittent renewables such as wind and solar power, and providing fuel for “the hard-to-electrify parts of transportation and industry,” such as airplanes, large trucks and steel- or cement-making. Keith is already targeting some of these markets through Carbon Engineering, a company he founded focused on direct air capture of carbon dioxide for large-scale liquid fuel production. But he says he is “deeply skeptical” about doing it on a distributed building or neighborhood basis. “Economies of scale can’t be wished away. There’s a reason we have huge wind turbines,” he says—and a reason we do not have backyard all-in-one pulp-and-paper mills for disposing of our yard wastes. He believes it is simply “faster and cheaper” to take carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into fuel “by doing it an appropriate scale.”
Climate change represents an existential, global threat to humanity, yet its delocalized nature complicates climate action. Here, the authors propose retrofitting air conditioning units as integrated, scalable, and renewable-powered devices capable of decentralized CO2 conversion and energy democratization.
Ed Miliband was busy evangelising on Today this morning about the need to declare a climate “emergency”, advocating restricting flights and slapping higher taxes on plane tickets. Unfortunately for poor Mother Earth, Ed doesn’t seem to have believed it was enough of an emergency to alter his own travel habits. Since December 2017 Ed has racked up over 19,000 air miles, pumping out over 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide:
Essaouira, Morocco: over 2,800miles return
Week-long American tour including Boston and Chicago: over 8,000mile round trip
Iceland: 2,360miles return
Malaga: 2,080 miles return
Zurich: 978 miles return
Vienna: 1,582 miles return
Florence: 1,512 miles return
At least Ed has saved some air miles by combining various work trips with family trips, a donor was kind enough to pay for his wife to come along on his Malaga trip, while his kids came along on his US tour and even got treated to free game tickets for his beloved Boston Red Sox. Air Miliband is clearly a classy affair, Ed’s trip to Florence came in at a handsome £1,090 for just one night’s accommodation with returns flights and ‘subsistence’. At least Ed won’t have to worry himself about the taxes going up, it’s just his donors who’ll be taking the hit…