UK Energy: Necessity breeds invention, demand drives innovation

18Aug / 2016

UK Energy: Necessity breeds invention, demand drives innovation

UK energy demands are at their highest levels, with a substantial need for foreign imports despite their effect on the national balance of payments. Dwindling North Sea oil and gas supplies, an adverse exchange rate and the need to reduce green-house gas emissions have all contributed to exacerbating the UK’s energy trilemma; keeping our transport rolling, houses heated and the lights on, while keeping costs down and tackling climate change.

Alternative, more sustainable fuels are required to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. If the 18th century was the age of horse power, the 19th century coal and the 20th century oil, then the 21st century will be known as the age of gas. While natural gas has the lowest carbon to energy ratio of all the fossil fuels, new energy sources that are ultimately more sustainable must be developed alongside it.

Natural gas linked to carbon capture and storage (CCS) may be part of the answer, offering a low carbon transition fuel for the next few decades, however more innovative energy sources are required to sustain us for the later half of the century and beyond. Photovoltaics or wind farms will struggle to provide energy in adequate quantities, in addition they have serious environment impacts associated with their source materials and construction.

Investment in new nuclear power plants in the UK has been a real prospect for many years, with Hinkley Point C potentially providing 7% of the UK’s generation needs whilst minimising carbon output. However, the new government put a hold on its progress, citing the reason as security risks. The halt on certain fuel sources combined with the limitations of others begs the question of which new or combination of alternatives will work.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has put the country in a fresh position regarding trade, which naturally prompts the need to widen the scope for venture and commerce. The UK is an attractive prospect for overseas investment as there’s money to be made and measures in place to protect that money. Britain’s commitment to lawful practice and accountability also makes it an ideal location to test innovative ideas alongside strong regulatory systems which assess risk and limit potential negative impact.

Perhaps not only are new, innovative sources of energy required, but so is a change of mind set regarding how energy is acquired, used and conserved.  Energy underpins everything that we do in a modern society from making the products we rely on, to creating the fertilizers needed to grow food as well as fueling transport. As a society, a rethink of how we value energy may be key to making the right choices to sustain us in the long term.

shalewell

As we see our European counterparts gradually eliminating the idea, the UK stands alone and ahead in it’s willingness to pursue innovation in the onshore petroleum industry. Shale has so far seen solid support from the new government, insisting that its development can coincide with that of renewables, leading to significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and that it is compatible with UK carbon budgets. Most significantly, it raised the importance of developing the resources in line with the UK’s strong regulatory framework, including the need for monitoring methane for a twelve month period to establish the baseline conditions before hydraulic fracturing can start.

GGS played a substantial part in shaping UKOOG’s environmental baseline guidelines and developing the best available technology to monitor any changes – continuous monitoring. Having concluded that spot-monitoring lacked the scientific robustness required for hydraulic fracturing, GGS pioneered continuous monitoring of ground gas as the most effective way to safely monitor shale development.

It is crucial to establish baseline conditions at a site in advance. Although it cannot be presumed that the presence of ground gas is a direct result of industrial activity, without the baseline data there is no proof. The most scientifically sound way of detecting any changes to the baseline is to apply continuous monitoring, harness the independent data this produces and in order to meet regulatory requirements.

With further advancements in this technology on the horizon, promising accessible, real-time data that is quick and cost-effective, the potential for such innovative environmental monitoring is extensive. Applying these methods could assist with the safe exploration of a brand new resource, enabling the UK to be energy solvent, whilst providing peace of mind for operators, regulators and communities.

There are no easy answers to the UK energy trilemma. Nuclear power is nothing new, but could ease the energy burden in the short term. Wind farms meet only 5% of energy demands and is inconstant in its production. The development of onshore petroleum is a vastly significant innovation, which has the potential to help address the balance of our energy resources long term whilst assisting with the development of further resources. Only time will tell whether the UK is prepared to adopt a new mindset and give other dynamic energy options a chance, or whether the real impact of our new position, in the EU and the rest of the world, has yet to embed.

GGS offers expert continuous monitoring services in onshore petroleum. Find out more here.