These days, energy production is heavily reliant on aspects of efficiency as well as sustainability – especially given how many options we have at our disposal. In the United Kingdom, the government has stated that shale gas has the potential to provide greater energy security, growth, and jobs for the public, saying that it is “encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential.” But a recent study from the University of Manchester has found that shale gas is actually one of the least sustainable options for producing electricity.
In this major study – the first of its kind – researchers considered environmental, economic, and social sustainability of shale gas in the UK and compared it to eight other electricity generating options. These other options were coal, nuclear, natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, hydro and biomass. Comparing these options against 18 sustainability indictors, the results showed that shale gas ranked seventh out of the nine electricity options.
For shale gas to be considered as sustainable as the best options – wind and solar PV, massive improvements would need to be made, including a 329-fold reduction in environmental impact and 16 times higher employment in the sector. Furthermore, the environmental and social sustainability of shale gas would need to be improved by up to 100 times for it to compete with domestic natural gas and imported LNG.
“Many countries are considering exploitation of shale gas but its overall sustainability is disputed,” says Adisa Azapagic, a professor at the University of Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science. “Previous studies focused mainly on environmental aspects of shale gas, largely in the US, with scant information on socio-economic aspects.”
Despite the government’s positive position on shale gas in the UK, Scotland has banned fracking and there is strong opposition throughout most of the United Kingdom. The main argument against shale gas is the environmental impact that comes from fracking. However, supporters of this process indicate that it helps improve national energy security and carries many economic benefits. But the research shows a different picture: “The results also suggest that any future electricity mix would be more sustainable with a lower rather than a higher share of shale gas,” explains Azapagic.
With this new research, hopefully the findings will be used to help inform UK policy makers, the industry, and consumers of the potential harm that could come with implementing increases in shale gas production.