Fracking or wind turbines?
Which would you choose?
I oppose fracking. My main reason for doing so is that I fear that fracking is being used as the means to put off developing our plentiful and clean renewable potential simply because it makes it easier for the Chancellor to generate a boom and bust economic recovery that will get him re-elected next year and perhaps in another 5 years time at the expense of a sustainable recovery and meaningful reductions in green house gas emissions. This is enough to make me oppose fracking. However there are lots of other reasons suggested for opposing fracking. Lots of frightening stories are out there on the internet. The problem is how to assess which risks are significant enough to be worth considering which is even harder than sorting the facts from the falsehoods. As a campaigner for renewables and therefore against fracking it is tempting to point out that some of the chemicals used in fracking in America are carcinogens and can have other toxic effects and fracking has been accused of causing earthquakes or of releasing natural gas into water supplies to the extent that gas escaping from domestic taps can be lit with a cigarette lighter. However it is not clear how comparable the fracking process in Britain would be to that use in America and, cynic though I am, I do still suspect that any use of the technique would be better regulated here than in the cowboy environment of the fracking industry of America. So it is hard to tell just how bad fracking would be for its potential neighbours in Britain. If you want to see the worst case scenario for fracking see this site: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/14/fracking-hell-live-next-shale-gas-well-texas-us
Perhaps a better approach is to ask ourselves how is it likely to compare with the alternatives? We do need to do something. Our energy infrastructure is wearing out and will not meet the needs of the 21st Century. If we ignore the ethical element we might get away with being NIMBYs and expect others to put up with things that we want the benefits from but don’t want to see near us but we cannot be BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody). The obvious alternative is wind turbines. Scare stories abound about noise and flicker and the amounts of concrete used in their foundation and of course there is the subjective aesthetic question of visual amenity. Now I have done much more research into the realities of the issues relating to wind turbines than I have into fracking and my conclusion is that every issue except the subjective question of visual impact is either grossly over stated by the antis or even absolutely untrue and that, when you are talking about small wind farms of less than ten turbines sited 500m or more from the nearest houses the visual impact is very much dependent on how much of a Victor Meldrew you let yourself become by staring at the turbines and winding yourself up into a froth about them. I truly believe that you have every reason to ignore them because they won’t do you any harm. It would be unfair of me therefore to suggest that you believe all the very worst stories about fracking and reject all the ones about wind turbines even though I believe that there is much more truth behind the fracking stories than the turbine myths (can you detect my bias there??!).
So what can we say for certain. Developing a fracking field involved months of heavy industrial work during which a great deal of noise and dust is created and millions of gallons of fracturing fluid will need to be tankered in or made up on site using local water resources and more concentrated chemicals which may or may not be a significant risk to you but certainly would not be something you would like to see spilled into your local stream if one of the many tankers was to have a crash. Most of the fracking fluid will come back to the surface via the bore hole and will need to be stored onsite until it can be tankered out again for safe disposal or reprocessing/recycling at another well. Part of the job of the fluid is to corrosively attack the rock the stop the cracks closing up again. This means that the fluid will return to the surface loaded with dissolved minerals. Now this might well not be the sort of thing you would bottle and sell as a health tonic as it is likely to include heavy metals in much the same way as the acid mine water does that has sterilized many a stream in Yorkshire or Wales. With the best will in the world I do believe that losses from storage lagoons and tanks will occur and sure, the firms will be fined by the Environment Agency etc, but only after the event when your environment is polluted.
Once the well heads are in place there will probably still need to be storage tanks on site and there may well be the requirement for periodic refracturing when the whole fluid insertion and pressurisation process will need to be repeated.
In comparison the building of a wind farm of 6 turbines is a minor inconvenience. Each turbine requires a concrete foundation equivalent to about 6 modern family homes and once they are in place the structure of the turbine itself can be erected in a single day especially if road links to the site are reasonable and it can be brought in largely prefabricated. Power electronics for the farm about the size of a single lorry container gather the electricity from the individual turbines and feed it into underground cables that connect into the 11kV mains at the sort of transformer station that you will already have in your village or community. Thereafter they run extremely quietly and require relatively low levels of maintenance for years of clean electricity generation.
In conclusion my main objection to fracking is because of the implications for the long term energy policies of our country but I am also in no doubt whatsoever, 100% certain etc etc that I would choose a wind farm in my back yard over a fracking site any day of the year but will I get the chance to choose? Of course I won’t. As long as the government thinks it can make a quick buck to boost GDP and it calculates that the anti-wind turbine campaigners are active in more marginal rural constituencies than the anti-fracking campaigners are they will push ahead with fracking in just the same way as 12 new nuclear power plants will be pushed through because it is a flaw in the democratic system that the unreasonable objections of 100 constituencies to wind turbines outvote the reasonable objections of 12 constituencies to nuclear expansion.
Localism is all very well but is must go hand in hand with a sense of the bigger picture. We can all share in the benefits of dispersed generation by renewables but we must all accept a little of something in our back yard unless we want to take our chances in the fracking and nuclear lotteries and condemn our grandchildren to suffer the longer term consequences.