Releasing trapped sunlight

John Baldwin shares his opinions about the UK shale industry

The UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) has been a great source of gas and has helped to fund the development of a fantastic gas grid and 20 million central heating systems in the period 1970 – 1990. Unfortunately, reserves are depleting fast and by 2030 National Grid estimate that around 80 per cent of the gas in the UK will be imported. Whether this is US shale gas LNG, Qatar LNG or Russian pipeline gas makes no difference, it will cost over £10 billion a year and that gas will pay tax in Texas, Doha or Moscow and not in the UK.

Luckily for the UK, 300 million years ago there was a large inland sea located where Lancashire is today. This created the Bowland shale resource and it contains around 1500 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas. Even if we can only recover 20 per cent of this resource, that’s 300 tcf or around 60 times the gas from our largest gas field at South Morecambe, most of which has been consumed. All that gas will be used in some form of appliance; releasing trapped sunlight stored for 300 million years.

The leak of Hilary Clinton emails showed that she believed anti-fracking in the US has been funded by Russia in order to keep that gas in the ground and support high priced Russian gas exports. Clearly, the anti-frackers have failed, as the US shale gas production is now huge, with low prices into the future and enough gas to export as LNG. Crucially for the planet, the shale gas has caused a 40 per cent fall in US coal production in the last seven years. There is nothing President Trump can do about this as the latest fracking techniques are estimated to save every American house-hold around $1300/year in energy costs! Clear air, low CO2, low cost, no wonder President Obama loved shale gas.

In the UK there has been opposition, but this is falling away as shale gas development consents are being granted and the public is finding out that eco charities have been telling lies and spreading fake news. The Advertising Standard Authority publicised that the Friends of the Earth charity had agreed to not repeat evidence free claims in a leaflet they issued about fracking polluting drinking water and causing cancer. FOE are on the naughty step and in disgrace as a charity because of their alternative facts strategy.

With declining UKCS production, we are shipping LNG to the UK from Qatar and the US. To make LNG requires gas to be cooled to -160 deg C and this uses a huge amount of energy, around 15 per cent of the energy in the gas. By the time the gas is transported to the UK and then heated to turn the liquid into gas for injection into the gas grid, the energy penalty is 20 per cent. This is clearly a bad thing for UK carbon emissions.

Shale gas in the US has been shown to have the lowest carbon footprint of any gas and the UK will be even lower because the gas will be produced close to high-pressure gas pipelines that can take the gas a short distance to major customers in Manchester and the Midlands. UK environmental regulation plus the latest development techniques mean that there will be no measurable leaks of natural gas from UK shale gas. Why lose any of this valuable resource?

Low GHG domestic shale gas will displace high GHG LNG, even better, the US and Qatar LNG will still be produced and will find a market in China, displacing coal as it has in the US. So the Bowland shale gas will reduce UK and Chinese GHG emissions, what a fantastic gift from those Lancashire dinosaurs.

In the UK, gas is playing a critical role in the development of renewable energy as it is the fuel of choice to provide back-up generation for intermittent wind and solar, with the recent electricity capacity auctions launching a new wave of gas generation in the UK to provide this back-up when it’s not sunny and not windy. There is now a consensus in the UK that low load factor gas generation must be on standby to support an electricity grid, which will have high levels of wind generation by 2025. New gas generation being built in the UK will be mainly based on 20 MW gas engine generation plants with around 42 per cent efficiency, which can happily run at <10 per cent load factor, with no staff and limited maintenance.

Today we can also use more gas to improve air quality, particularly in our cities where nitrous oxide smog has come back to haunt us. Scania are selling a dedicated compressed natural gas (CNG) tractor with a range of 500 miles. The gas grid offers 10,000 miles of high-pressure gas pipelines that run close to most of our major distribution centres, perfect for trucking. This grid is a legacy from the UKCS that is paying huge dividends for UK plc. The high-pressure grid and CNG tractor has given logistics companies the ability to migrate away from diesel by 2025 and stop poisoning their customers. They like that.

Demand for gas is set to be high in the UK until at least 2050. It will fall from the current 800 TWh/annum to around 400 TWh, but that means the UK will still need a large amount of gas and we can produce this using the Bowland resource.

In 2018, Cuadrilla will start to inject the first shale gas into the gas grid near Blackpool and we will be able to establish that the ‘well-head to burner’ tip carbon footprint of shale gas will be very low, 20 per cent lower than LNG. We will then be asking how best to exploit our shale gas resource? I think quite simply we should develop it, tax it, displace gas imports, run all trucks on gas, fund domestic gas demand reduction and fund renewable gas for starters. The Golden Age for UK gas is here.

CNG Services Ltd
John Baldwin is MD of Queen’s Award for Innovation winner, CNG Services. CNG Services Ltd (CSL) provides design, build and project management services to new gas pipelines, CNG filling stations, biomethane to grid plants and in relation to onshore natural gas processing plants. This includes connections to the high pressure LTS (Local Transmission System) and NTS (National Transmission System) where CSL integrates the design and build of the LTS/NTS connection and associated pipeline with the main project which can be CNG filling station, gas power plant, biomethane to grid plant or onshore gas processing facility.

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