Scotland – reduce reliance on wind, develop fracking and clathrates research

Scotland should be very wary about further investment in wind power, it should develop fracking for gas, invest in energy storage, and do research into arctic methane clathrates, says Professor Brian Smart, former head of petroleum engineering at Heriot-Watt University

Professor Brian Smart, former head of petroleum engineering and vice principal at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, believes that Scotland may be pushing too hard with its efforts to switch to 100 per cent renewable electrical energy by 2020, because the country could become too dependent on now-proven intermittent wind-powered electricity generation.

It would be better developing shale gas fracking, to provide a home-grown electricity supply, which can plug the gaps when the wind is not blowing. 

Scotland should also look hard at energy storage, but probably not expect a large scale energy storage solution to be available in the near future. 

He also suggests that Scotland could apply some of its research capability into finding ways to mitigate the threat of melting methane clathrates sending methane into the atmosphere, including ‘mining' the methane and putting it to industrial use. This could draw on Scotland's research capability in subsurface, subsea, petroleum engineering and project management.

With challenges over the EU, Scottish independence and the economy, “there are enough major uncertainties facing Scotland in the future without having to live with a self-induced uncertainty of electricity supply come 2020,” he says. 

Scotland's energy policy of the past few years has been largely about developing wind power. But this policy may have reached its limits, because the more a country is dependent on wind, the more dependent it is on back-up power supplies, Professor Smart says. 

It has been argued in the past that sufficient wind would always be blowing somewhere to fulfil power requirements. This has been shown to be incorrect, he says. “There is enough experience now of the output and management of distributed wind power to enable strategic decisions and plans to be made.”

Strategic mistakes have been made in over-reliance on wind power, without providing sufficient back-up storage.

Policy makers also assumed that it would be economically acceptable to the public, for governments to build over-capacity of wind power, and for electricity buyers to finance ‘constraint payments', paying the wind sector not to generate.

As an alternative, Scotland has power available from nuclear, gas, biomass and hydroelectric, but the nuclear power is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2030.  There is no appetite for coal power in Scotland, and some limited tolerance for gas and nuclear, he says.

If Scotland cannot provide its own electricity, it must be imported from England, or perhaps elsewhere in Europe, and this power is likely to be generated using fossil fuels. 

The contribution which the wind power sector can make to provide a reliable electricity supply for the country can be misleading, Professor Smart says. The wind power industry will typically quote its average output, and output on particularly good days. 

But customers want continuous electricity supply. This means that when it is not windy, the wind power needs to be supported by nuclear, gas, coal, hydro and biomass, and electricity imports from Europe, he says.

The picture is clear by looking at real time information about the UK's electricity generation, which is freely available online. 

For example, on September 15 2016 at 10am, the UK's total demand was 36 GW, 22 per cent being supplied by nuclear, 47 per cent by gas, 16 per cent by coal, 3 per cent by hydro, 4 per cent biomass and 1 per cent by wind. 7 per cent was imported from Europe. At this time, Scotland was importing almost 1GW from England.

The cost of the wind power to the National Grid is also influenced by Constraint Payments, whereby the National Grid pays the wind power industry not to generate, preferring to use output from other generation sources that can't be switched off, such as nuclear. 

The Scottish Government plans to get electricity generation to be 100 per cent renewable by 2020, largely without storage, and ultimately without nuclear power.

This is a solution which addresses global warming, but without storage, threatens security, surety and affordability of supply.

The problem would not be solved simply by pushing the date (for 100 per cent renewables) backwards, to allow time for storage to be developed, because Scotland plans to decommission its 1.2 GW Torness nuclear power station in 2023, and decommissioning its 1.0 GW Hunterston nuclear power station in 2030. This will create a further hole in demand for reliable electricity.

Other “secure and sure” electricity capability is the Peterhead gas power station (0.4 GW), and 1.5GW of hydroelectricity, and 0.5 GW of biomass. So by 2030, the ‘secure and sure' electricity capability will be reduced from 4.6 GW now to 2.4 GW.  Meanwhile Scotland's electricity demand varies between 3GW and 6GW. 

At the moment, wind must supply at least 1.4 GW at times of peak demand, or electricity is imported from England, if it is available. 

This assumes that England has sufficient capacity, either generated in England or imported from the continent.  It is likely that much of this imported electricity will have been generated by nuclear and gas, detracting from Scotland's 100% renewable vision, and potentially putting a brake on independence. 

Electricity demand can be reduced through more efficient homes and smart grids. “But this will take time. Also this is not a competent solution to wind's intermittency – there are times when wind power output is reduced to zero,” he says.

Electricity storage
There is a need to develop energy storage capacity, “preferably using a range of technologies,” he says. This can include pumped storage and hydrogen power. 

Distributed battery storage can also contribute, but will take time to build. Production of Lithium has environmental issues, so batteries are not properly green, he says.

The Scottish government did study a “Energy Storage and Management” study in 2010, which may be worth re-examining. 

A revised study could get an understanding of how significant the degree of wind power intermittency is to the need to provide reliable electricity in Scotland.

If Scotland does not have enough energy storage to cover the periods of low electricity supply from renewables, it will probably have to rely on gas power, he says. 

Shale gas and fracking
Shale gas (accessed by fracking) from Scotland can fill gaps in renewable electricity supply. Nothing needs to be imported. And if the gas power station has a carbon capture and storage system, it could be zero carbon. 

It would be possible to build CCGT (Combined Cycle Gas Turbine) plants which can be reasonably easily cycled (power output moved up and down check) to compensate for wind's intermittency.

Many people are opposed to fracking for environmental reasons. They need to be somehow convinced that shale gas is safe, and essential in retaining current living standards, at least through a transitional phase, Professor Smart says.

“Misinformation and emotion have superseded strategic need and science and engineering, creating a powerful anti-fracking political lobby in Scotland, England and Wales.”

“The anti-frackers in Scotland have also chosen to ignore the two hundred years of experience of the much more intrusive surface and underground coalmining in Scotland, which did not ruin the local environment. On the contrary, this industrial effort powered the industrial revolution, creating the foundation for the standard of living we all enjoy today. The local environmental legacy of coalmining has been managed. 

“The British Government has taken the anti-fracking lobby on, and it is likely that fracking will proceed in England.” 

Arctic methane
A related energy issue of interest to Scotland, Professor Smart believes, is that rising Arctic temperatures might lead to a release of massive amounts of methane currently held within ice water crystals in the Arctic (known as methane clathrates).

Methane itself is an especially powerful greenhouse gas. So this could lead to an irreversible and large kick in global warming.

Clathrates are “a compound in which molecules of one component are physically trapped within the crystal structure of another” – so in this case, methane molecules are trapped within ice crystals. The methane comes from bacterial decay of organic matter, or are leaked from underlying oil and gas deposits. The methane is prevented from entering the atmosphere in the first place, because of it forms into clathrates. 

Scotland has all of the academic competences to develop an industrial method to ‘mine' these clathrates so they can be burned as part of normal gas power supplies – including subsurface, subsea, petroleum engineering and project management, Professor Smart says. 

This may be an interesting area of research for Scotland universities, given its expertise in the critical areas of subsurface, subsea, petroleum engineering and project management, Mr Smart says.

“This is a potential project with a big concept and very substantial multi-disciplinary content.” 

A project could begin by assembling the data, analysis and opinions already available, enabling a position to be taken. If that position is that the predicted risks are credible, the complex project scope can be outlined, at least to the point where serious discussions with the various likely protagonists can begin.  

There are “opportunities for geoengineering type and scale projects that look at capturing methane at source before it is released to the atmosphere, as well as the more conventional geoengineering projects that engage with the atmosphere,” he says.

There has been studies on clathrates in an oil production context, where they can block pipelines. Work has been done by Prof Bahman Tohidi's work in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. The physics are the same as with naturally occurring clathrates.

There is a growing network of foreign academics and research organisations working on these, primarily from a fuel resource of view. The Japanese are probably leaders in the field, and have successfully prospected for and produced gas from hydrates

Perhaps it will be possible to develop technology which will capture Arctic methane at source, and liquefy it for transport to a market, rather than let it into the atmosphere.

Japan has managed to capture subsea hydrates, but no-one has developed techniques for capturing methane from the Tundra.

If environmentalists are presented with a dilemma of whether to support the industrial scale access to fossil fuels in the Arctic, or the risk of accelerated global warming, “It makes the anti-fracking conundrum look small in comparison,” Prof Smart says.

Brian Smart was interviewed by Karl Jeffrey of Future Energy Publishing Ltd

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