zombieland-series-logoAlthough I get satisfaction hearing any number of people talk about shale gas myths (Ed Davey, David Cameron and Channel Four UK  being only three) as I have for over three years at both No Hot Air and ShaleGasInfo.eu , I wish I had copyrighted it.

Nothing stands still in shale, including the facts. Production is booming at the same time that accidents won’t happen, prices fall further,fears of a shale bubble recede and initial production figures now seem laughably conservative. Yet the same old fears repeat, and repeat and repeat. I call them Zombie Shale Facts ©. Like shale itself, we have to discuss the facts in the 2014 version:

ZSFs, possessed of a half life no less than that of uranium 235, have three main characteristics: 

Zombie Shale Facts were often doubtful in the first place, but as shale becomes increasingly newsworthy, they are re-introduced to the debate by newcomers, either in the anti-gas groups springing up everywhere, or within the media. They’re zombies because however many times they get shot down in one area, group or publication, they eventually pop up elsewhere. We could call them Whac a Mole facts, but that is itself another outdated meme once really hot but now only rating a quizzical roll of the eyes from teenagers of the 21st century.

Zombie Shale Facts are repeated by each new generation, but the counterfactual isn’t. Taps on fire, earthquakes, poisoned water and secret chemicals have entered the field of urban myth. Everybody knows they’re true but not only can nobody upply any proof, no one has any interest in seeking it out. But no matter, because as Joseph Goebbels pointed out, “if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself”. Excepting, of course, the idea that Goebbels said it is itself a lie.

Finally, Zombie Shale Facts s are thought such common knowledge that they appear to the public to be as true as the earth is round, but contradictory views receive as much press as the Flat Earth Society or the Dog Biting Man Alliance. 

The first in the complete series, out soon to registered users, is one of the foundation Zombie Shale Facts: Shale Gas prevents the development of renewables.

As in so much else, the fact depends on a basic ignorance of how electricity is generated. Electricity does not come out of the wall. It’s magic, but magic made possible by thousands of people working very hard about it, so everyone else doesn’t have to give it a second thought.

Electricity demand is not  constant. Everyone likes to switch their lights on and cook the dinner at 1800.But 9 hours later at 0300, you can’t give the stuff away. Which is why nuclear generators have most contracts to supply street-lighting.

Natural gas is a flexible fuel. Compared to the permanent chain reaction needed to power nuclear plants or the several hours needed to fire up a coal plant, one can almost turn on the gas, get a turbine spinning, and generate electricity into the grid within minutes. One can’t simply turn a nuclear plant on or off. Coal plants, are not as bad, but are far from flexible either. Heating up and cooling down coal plants wreaks havoc on the boiler and cuts both overall efficiency and life cycle.

Renewables are more predictable than many opponents give them credit for. It’s no surprise the sun sinks into the horizon each evening, and nor does wind suddenly disappear without notice. But wind especially can suddenly, if forecast within reason, either pick up or calm down. Since energy storage at utility scale is not yet possible, the only way to ensure the lights stay on is to ensure gas is available. (You can, of course, run a country completely on nuclear like France and then export power to neighbours, but we wont go there). 

Natural gas has another advantage in that both coal and nuclear plants tend to be big. The UK’s Drax for example has a capacity of 3,960 megawatt hours and Sizewell 1,320MW. UK electricity swings from around 25 MW at 0500 on a summer Sunday to 50MW at 1800 on a December Monday. This means that gas takes up the slack at 1800 on the December Monday, but also appears quickly on the grid when wind drops. An example is the  Thames (offshore wind) Array in the UK working with gas. The Array has a nameplate capacity of 630MW, made up of 175 separate turbine or 3.6 MW each. All 175 are unlikely to be turning at once, all needing regular, and separate, maintenance programs. Similarly, the wind speed is unlikely to be at full capacity at once either, and the actual amount of power varies depending on wind speed.  Natural gas generators can be large, but are increasingly modular or distributed across the grid: Just like renewables.

In short, the grid, and the Array, depend on natural gas to replace intermittent windpower. Gas is always available at the flick of a switch, something not lost even at the operation headquarters of the Array in Ramsgate:

Construction on our permanent operations and maintenance base started in September 2010 and the team moved in towards the end of 2011. The building incorporates a number of environmentally-friendly features, such as a green roof and its own Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant.

In short, even the operations centre itself has to depend on gas powered CHP to replace their own power in times of low wind.  

The big fear of European environmentalists is that natural gas will prevent the building of new renewables. But the reality in the US is exactly the opposite. This from the CEO of Alliant Energy, the dominant supplier and operator in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa:

“What’s happening now, which is a really cool thing, is that we do resource planning 20 or 30 years out, and it looks like we need more wind in our portfolio,” Kampling said. “It’s totally based on economics. And without subsidies. And without a carbon tax.”

In 2010 Alliant embarked on a strategy to shift its reliance on coal to a greater mix of natural gas and wind. In 2013 almost half its energy still came from coal, but the Midwest utility plans to close all but five of 25 coal plants, and on Tuesday it received an air permit for a new gas plant in Iowa.

Modern gas plants ramp up more quickly than traditional coal or nuclear plants, so they can respond more quickly to variations in wind.

“As you get this more flexible portfolio — before we couldn’t have more wind because we didn’t have enough gas. Once we have the gas we can have more wind.

There’s no lack of gas in Texas and the same rule applies. More gas = more wind.

Wind power on the Texas grid hit a peak of 10,296 megawatts around 9 p.m. last night, setting a new generation record for the industry, according to the state’s grid operators

The record recorded by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas comes as wind turbines get more efficient and more farms connect to the grid through a multi-billion dollar state project to build more transmission lines connecting east and west Texas.

This morning wind farms also supplied 38 percent of “all the electricity consumed,” the American Wind Energy Association wrote in a press release

“These records far exceed ERCOT’s old records of 9,681 megawatts of wind output and 35 percent of electricity demand… ERCOT’s record is now the highest megawatt wind output for any U.S. power system.”

Texas currently counts more than 7,000 wind turbines across the state, with a capacity of 12,355 megawatts, according to the wind association. The group reports more than 7,000 megawatts of capacity are now in development in Texas.

Interestingly, the only part of the US electric system that isn’t strong on renewables is New York and New England. They both get a lot of hydro-power imported from Quebec but there’s little local wind power. Looking at the opposite to Texas, what’s the situation in Vermont, the only US state with a mandated ban on shale gas?

Vermont's wind capacity is on the rise as it more than doubled in 2012, and wind energy now provides more than 3% of generation in the state. Wind energy means economic development for Vermont.

Thus, the state with most gas produces twelve times more wind power per unit of power, than the one which banned shale. This is mirrored throughout New England, where a lack of pipeline capacity means natural gas is incredibly expensive in some winter periods. Massachusetts has a measly 106 MW of wind despite having an extensive offshore and empty mountainous interior.

New Jersey, another state that doesn’t appear to have any shale potential but has declared a moratorium anyway. New Jersey is next door to the Marcellus of course, but shares similar gas capacity constraints to New York and New England, which means wind production in the Garden State is, to be polite, underwhelming:

Equivalent number of homes New Jersey wind farms now power: nearly 3,000 average New Jerseyan homes

Surely they must produce more wind than Pennsylvania? After all, natural gas is the enemy of renewables as Europe's Greenpeace and the Fiends about the Earth tell us. Yet:

Pennsylvania joins 14 other states that exceed 1,000 MW of operating wind energy capacity which can power the equivalent of over 300,000 Pennsylvanian homes.

As good as Pennsylvania is, the other oil and gas powerhouse powering wind is Oklahoma

Percentage of Oklahoma's electricity provided by wind in 2013: 14.8 percent.

The conclusion is clear: The more gas is available at an affordable price, the more wind power is enabled. In short, cheaper gas means more wind. I think I’ll put shale gas prevents wind as Zombie Shale Fact (©) Number One. I’m happy to see that good news hit the front pages. But I won’t hold my breath.

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  • Andy

    I just noticed this post from the NRDC (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/jmoore/the_polar_vortex_and_the_power.html) which hits the same theme, the US power grid during the past winter and the future, with different emphases.

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  • Tommie

    If renewable energy are so confident their popularity and business why worry so much from shale. Talking about insecurity and feeling inadequate.

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