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March 20 2013
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PDD

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What fracking energy crisis?

Energy is one of the major topics for this century. In this post, Matt talks through the energy potential of hydrocarbons and how our reliance on maintaining existing infrastructures is stopping progression in newer, renewable resources.

We have been assuming a very low cost and virtually limitless supply of energy principally based on non-renewable hydrocarbons. In the early days, oil was extracted with ease. Every one barrel of oil expended would deliver 50 to 100 barrels, these days it takes one barrel of oil to deliver five.

The growing consensus is that we have gone beyond peak oil. The extremes of deep water extraction and the destruction of the landscape in order to extract from the tar sands show an increasingly desperate search. Currently, one barrel of oil is found for every four used.

It looks like large scale fracking of shale gas and perhaps shale oil is coming to the UK and many parts of the world just in time to maintain supply of hydrocarbon energy for a few more years, but to what end?


Energy, a human perspective
We have lost touch with the scale of the energy that we use on a daily basis.
A human with a diet of approximately 2,500 calories per day can deliver around 100Watts output all day, roughly the equivalent of keeping one 100W light bulb glowing all day.

In the UK, the average energy we use in the house, workplace, being a consumer, travel etc. is approximately 125KWh/day. This would be enough to keep 52 100W light bulbs glowing all day.

A barrel of oil contains about 1.7MWh of energy which would keep some 708 100Watt light bulbs glowing all day.

The energy density of a barrel of oil is absolutely amazing.

A human delivering 100Watt output would have to work for roughly 10 years to deliver the energy of a £75 barrel of oil.
So even if we valued this natural resource at the minimum wage in the UK, oil, which is considered to be sitting at a historically high price, is in the order of 165 times too cheap.
We are using up one of the planet’s natural capital assets and not paying the true cost. This has locked the energy systems infrastructure and technology into a blind alley and an economic model based on readily available cheap energy that does not have to be used too efficiently.

This week I attended a debate on Fracking at The Building Centre. Estimates vary considerably but it seems that there is about three North Sea Oils-worth of shale gas under the UK. The Lancashire shale gas field could deliver in the order of one trillion cubic feet of gas per year for 40 years, which is about a third of the current UK annual demand.

The tax revenue, energy security and economic boost of low price energy would all suggest that it will be business as usual for hydrocarbons for a few more decades.

So what of the impact? Well it seems that the consensus is that manmade climate change is real and that we have probably gone beyond the tipping point and burning shale gas is less bad than burning coal and everybody else will be doing it so why should we put ourselves at a disadvantage. But, as people have said before, being less bad is not good.

Alternative energy exists just not as we use it
In the order of 10,000 times more energy hits the earth every year from the sun than we all use but we have not made it our principle energy source.
Renewables suffer from a lack of energy density, intermittent supply and a lack of storage. These challenges combined with us all using less energy more efficiently are not going to be prioritised while existing hydrocarbon supplies remain open and affordable.
The way that we are using the limited natural capital, which represents about 300 million years of stored solar energy, in this undervalued way is not creating the environment necessary to develop using the sun as an energy source.
The courageous thing to do would be to introduce a significant carbon tax on these non-renewable hydrocarbons that could be used to pay for development of renewable technology.
The most likely thing to happen will be that we have another period of cheap energy from shale gas, possibly followed by shale oil and we will be able to watch all of the climate change events unfold on big televisions with all the lights on.
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Posted by PDD
@pddinnovation

Languages spoken: Global.
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
My dream project: A project that makes a difference in the world.
My obsession: Develop successful, award-winning and world-first products and experiences.

Image credit Featured image credit: Remsol, all other images: PDD

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