Oil exploration on English farmland. (Photo by Grant Smith)

Fracking is just common sense

The war in Ukraine has injected a healthy dose of realism into the West’s energy policy

Artillery Row

Putin’s war may well put an end to three decades of Western European energy provision, in the same way as it has woken up governments about the importance of a proper defence. The UK government, a keen defender of “net zero”, has just announced its new energy strategy. It purports to bring about a “major acceleration of homegrown power”.

Interestingly, it intends to double down on nuclear power, by “delivering the equivalent to one nuclear reactor a year instead of one a decade”. This would reportedly mean the approval of eight more nuclear reactors on existing sites. It would be in line with the “nuclear renaissance” which is happening in Europe. The Belgian government, which includes hardline anti-nuclear greens, has just decided not to shut down two of its nuclear power reactors after all.

France and the Netherlands recently decided to extend the life of old nuclear power plants, while announcing the construction of new ones. The Czech Republic is now planning the same; in Finland, a new nuclear power plant has just been activated. The European Commission has also recently proposed to list nuclear energy as “green”, under certain conditions, even if its state aid policies towards nuclear remain hostile.

The focus has shifted to old fashioned energy security

The UK government plan does aim to increase wind, hydrogen and solar production. While the government intends to cut approval times for new offshore wind farms, the same support is not being granted to onshore wind, which is remarkably more controversial. One cabinet member described the mills as “eyesores”. Still, green groups have been pushing hard for them. As a means of compromise, the new strategy commits to consulting on developing partnerships with “a limited number of supportive communities” who want to host wind turbines in exchange for guaranteed lower energy bills.

As a result of Putin’s war, the focus has now shifted from lofty COP26-era rhetoric to good old fashioned energy security. This is fast becoming the top priority across Europe as well, with prominent voices calling even in nuclear-phobic Germany to extend its three remaining nuclear power plants.

Some MPs, including David Davis, have even called for the UK to reconsider its ban on fracking, with Davis stressing: “The Royal Academy of Engineering and the chairman of the Environment Agency have declared fracking safe. Shale gas is much cleaner than coal or conventional gas.”

The economics of it make sense, given how U.S. wholesale gas prices were in early February, before the war, six times higher than in the United States. Fracking policy has continued under Joe Biden.

The UK Government has requested a review of the tremor risks associated with fracking, as a sign that a change of heart is not completely ruled out. In mainland Europe, fracking is still a taboo, even if it now plans to import a lot of American “freedom gas”. Former U.S. President Trump so dubbed American gas produced by fracking, which has been used in the States since 1947. It may well have been unfairly vilified by opponents, that were sometimes funded by Russia, according to former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. At least, the Prime Minister of Bavaria (who’s also the leader of the CSU, in opposition to the new German government) has now called for an open mind towards shale gas.

This is simply common sense. Of course, genuine environmental concerns should be taken seriously. Nonetheless, given how the UK had already been importing more and more U.S. shale gas before the war, it is getting high time to wonder if perhaps the United States is not hell-bent on destroying its own environment. The fact that Joe Biden did not ban fracking after becoming President could assuage some concerns.

The cost of unreliable energy sources

As much as the UK seems to have turned towards prioritising energy security over engaging with experiments to change the energy mix, the new strategy does not represent a massive U-turn away from so-called “renewable” energy sources. The government pledges it will “look to increase the UK’s current 14GW of solar capacity which could grow up to five times by 2035”.

Like onshore wind farms, the solar farms springing up across the UK are faced with a lot of opposition. A proposed new £600m solar farm in eastern England — which would cover an area eight times bigger than Hyde Park in central London — has for example been named a “blight” on the countryside. It is only one of 900 solar farms in the planned pipeline to provide green energy.

There is nothing wrong with solar energy in itself, but to subsidise it is simply the wrong path to take. Unfortunately, massive surfaces are needed for solar panels to deliver necessary amounts of energy, and all that land can no longer be used for agriculture. This is especially an issue given how Russian aggression is also driving up food prices across the globe.

Environmentalists should pause before blindly supporting solar panels

One may wish that solar and wind energy are the future, but despite years of subsidies, they only account for about 10 per cent of global energy provision. As opposed to nuclear energy, which also emits hardly any CO2, solar and wind are much less reliable.

Environmentalists should pause before blindly supporting solar panels, as these are mostly produced in China on the basis of coal power. There are great question marks to be raised when it comes to processing old solar panels and their toxic waste. The environmental downsides of both wind and solar energy have been widely documented but this has not stopped the greens from lending support for it.

When it comes to solar panels in the UK, these are particularly prevalent in Hampshire. Applications to install solar farms have been made for not less than 28 different sites, which would cover a massive 3,500 acres. There is for example one proposed 200-acre solar farm (by Enso Energy, on land near Silchester’s Church Lane Farm and Bramley’s Vyne Lodge Farm) which is equivalent to 140 football pitches. The Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s Development Control Committee still needs to grant planning permission. If it does so, this would make it the fifth largest solar farm in England and the largest in England on agricultural land. This would not exactly be minding the National Farmers’ Union’s warnings that the war, combined with new Brexit-related trade bureaucracy and old challenges, may well help create a “perfect storm” for UK food security.

The low global share of wind and solar energy in energy production should make it clear that the “transition” to a world where we can do without coal, gas and nuclear is unfortunately far away in the future. It would be nice to get there one day, as fully decentralised energy generation is not as likely to tend towards crony capitalism as much as mass energy production facilities, but the latter are way more reliable. It is good that the UK government is rethinking its unquestionable support for renewables in favour of nuclear, fully prioritising energy reliability. Since Putin started his war, the world has changed.

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