01152013 vietnam 377-200x200Various myths surrounding onshore natural gas and oil derived from shales are as nothing compared to views on energy in general and the role of renewables in particular, from those in the unreality based community.

A widely held narrative is that renewables are inevitable and/or just around the corner, so why are we bothering at all with putting more un-burnable carbon into the atmosphere? After all, if the UK produced natural gas, that would only encourage other users worldwide to use gas instead of renewables. What would happen of course is that people would either use gas instead of coal, or simply use more energy. Energy and prosperity go hand in hand. There are over 450 million Indians living off grid. This is not Nirvana to them, but a modern day version of the underworld, where several million people, often women, go to an early grave from indoor air pollution.

GBD2010 - Top Ten Risk Factors for Diseases and Deaths in Asia

Greens won’t mention gas/power solutions as natural gas is the anti-Christ. Compare the WHO with the latest updated figures from the infamous List of the Harmed from the US, which should really be called “I’m looking for a lawyer but even Saul Goodman won’t return the call.” This truly ludicrous site is cited as proof by people who should know better. Here’s only two random examples to balance risks. What’s worse: 7 million deaths per year proved by the World Health Organisation from air pollution... 

361. Ben Thornton and Family
Location: Jackson County, WV
Gas Facility:
Gas wells
Water – black stuff
“Everyone got sick”
Symptoms (animal):
Death of 70 chickens, eight or nine goats, 15 rabbits

534. Kim Triolo Feil
Location: Arlington TX
Gas Facility: 
Carrizo UT Arlington pad-site & General Motors Natural Gas pad-sites 
Increased breathing difficulty, uncontrolled eyebrow twitching/jar clenching, gastro issues, and joint pain/muscle weakness – joint pain/muscle weakness issues relieved with six month nutritionist/detox treatment
Symptoms (animal): Parrot developed cough/asthma

…or uncontrolled eyebrow twitching? Dead people? Or dead parrots? The problem in the UK is often uncontrolled curtain twitching from nosy neighbours who should get out more often. Lots of curtain twitchers are NIMBY's, who in the UK see any change at all as a change for the worst. Worse of all, is when NIMBYs are informed by Friends of the Earth in the information vacuum. UK journalists could figure the following out for themselves, but have long chosen instead to abdicate research to Frack Off.

This recent story from Balcombe was widely repeated.Who needs facts? This is a story of plucky little villagers choosing to battle evil multi-national hydrocarbon companies to reject shale gas fracking, but at the same time do the right thing and provide an alternative. Or, in this case perhaps not. But why let facts get in the way of a heart warming story?

Residents of Balcombe, the Sussex village which last summer became the centre of anti-fracking protests, have formed a new co-operative that aims to harness the power of the sun for electricity.

The new REPOWER Balcombe co-operative initially aims to raise £300,000 in a community share offering for six solar arrays on roofs in and around the village that will supply 7.5% of the village's power demand.

In the longer term, it hopes solar will provide all of its electricity needs.

Caution: Reality Check Ahead. If we use this nice app from Future Energy Strategies we discover the entire electricity use of the village is 4,063,471 kWh (4 gigawatts) spread among 755 electricity meters. That would have a wholesale energy only price of £200K at £50 MWH.There’s also 11 gigawatts of gas consumed, the wholesale cost of which would be £250K per year.

Doctor James Verdon has given a reality check:

In terms of electricity generation, 30 MMBTU will generate approximately 5,000GWh of electricity. Therefore our hypothetical Balcombe shale gas pad will, over the 30 year production period, produce an average of 166GWh per year of electricity.

How does this compare with proposed solar development? How many solar panels would be needed to match this rate? I'm not a solar expert, so if someone has better numbers then please comment. I've based this calculation on the numbers provided by the Westmill Solar Park in Wiltshire. The Westmill site occupies 30 acres, and produces 4.8GWh per year. This means, assuming that output scales linearly with area, we would need 35 Westmill Parks to match the output from our single hypothetical shale pad. Our hypothetical solar park would occupy an area of over 1,000 acres, or 4 square kilometres.

As regular readers will know from my new "Image of the Day" series, a picture tells a thousand words. The map below puts these areas into context. The satellite shot is centred on the well pad at Balcombe. The small yellow rectangle shows the extent of the well pad. The large blue square shows the extent of land that would have to be completely covered by solar panels in order to generate the same amount of electricity. The whole of Balcombe village (excluding outlying farms etc) fits easily into one quarter of our hypothetical solar plant.


What about the other renewable option. I asked another scientist who chooses to be anonymous since this is essentially an educated guess, how many windmills to match electricity demand.

Firstly no community can be independent of grid energy by installing solar power, because relatively little is produced in the late afternoon and none in the evening when demand is greatest. 

The first installation at Balcombe will produce 19kW, six such installations will cost £300K and supply 7.5% of the village, so they would need to spend £4M to supply all the houses, but the power would not be generated when they most need it. So there would have to be some alternative supply off the grid. 

It is true that they could produce the 4GWh of electricity per year that the village uses making the following assumptions:  The sun shines 10 hours per day and the average performance is 70% of rated output. This sounds unlikely.

19kW per installation x 6 installations x 10 hrs/day x 365 days per year x 0.7  x 760/60 = 3.7 GWh. 

They need a power source that will provide both heat and power for the village. This could be a wind farm. The combined gas and electric consumption is 16 GWh p.a.  

Assuming that they are not hypocrites they would be happy to have them around their village and would not consider imposing on any other communities, then four 1.8MW wind turbines producing the 7MW is what they might need for the village. On shore wind power might have a utilisation factor of 25% to allow down time and periods when there is no wind, too much wind, or when the grid cannot accept any more.

They need 16 GWh

 Capacity required is  16 GWh/ (24x365x0.25)  =  7.3 GW.

Small turbines take up more space than large ones of the same total capacity and they cost more to manufacture per MW, so let us suggest that they opt for four 1.8 to 2.0 MW turbines.  These would be 125 Metres high and have blades 45 metres long.  These would cost £10M to £15M. 


Of course when the wind is not blowing they would have to be backed up by the grid, probably using fossil fuel, or nuclear (except that nuclear is a base load power source). 

Alternatively they could burn biomass to heat their homes. We could calculate the acreage of timber required to be coppiced to heat 760 homes, and it would be necessary to take into account the effect on air quality due to wood burning, (concentration of pm <10) and hence life expectancy. Can they afford to change their land use to forestry from agriculture and horsiculture? 

As I say, some may pick holes in my calculations, but to me their presumption that they or any other community could be independent of fossil fuels in this highly populated nation seems absurd

The choice for Balcombe is not to become an energy Nirvana, but to avoid becoming a renewable energy Vietnam.

We had to destroy the village in order to save it.

Going back to James Verdon, he closes his post with this from James Hansen:

suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy."

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  • William

    Saw this tweeted by those protesting at BartonMoss:<br /><br />@BartonMoss “#bartonmoss URGENTLY needs water and gas for the cooker if anyone can help”.

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  • It doesnt add up...

    I trust you will take time to explain to the BBC why their current shale article is nonsense, non-factual and out of date.<br /><br />http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26735000

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  • Sam Thursfield

    Your analysis makes sense if we view the UK and the modern civilisation as constants, which can be tweaked slightly (let's get gas from here instead of here) but will otherwise remain the same. We know that to be nonsense, though. Some scientists predict collapse even within the next thirty years. It's absurd to think that the enourmously complex system of oil drilling, transport, refining and centralised power generation would somehow avoid being disrupted. Even if Balcome were to have its own fracking rig, would anyone locally be trained in how to operate it? Or even be allowed to visit and see the rig in action? By comparison, a solar PV installation would be fairly simple to maintain. Of course the production of solar panels is complex and their lifespan is limited, but it's a recognition of the fact that the real world changes, and not always for the better. Your dream that we can all rely on a super complex global energy distribution network and nothing will ever change is pure engineer's fantasy.

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  • Nick Grealy

    Sorry, Sam the fantasy is that solar can do that. This isn't either or though. Plenty or room for renewables and efficiency in the gas world. Some scientists predict collapse, but some did in 1970 and we're still here. I certainly intend to be.

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  • Harriet

    Thanks for finally writing about >Destroying Balcombe village in order to save it

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