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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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The coming dash for gas

Britain is burying its head in the sand about a new technology that is good for the environment

Update: I have misled the reader about the quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet. There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.


2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet. That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan Bates.


Today Times has an op-ed article by me on shale gas, behind a paywall. And there is an article with a similar import today in the National Journal, which includes this political point:

The State Department, meanwhile, sees geopolitical opportunities in the prospect of newly accessible natural-gas resources around the world and aims to make the most of them. By promoting new methods of exploration and extraction, it seeks to make other countries less dependent on imported natural gas. In India and China, in particular, the State Department hopes that new discoveries of gas deposits could replace coal and reduce emissions from coal use.

Here's the whole of my article:

The death of 29 men in the Pike River Mine is a reminder that our hunger for energy can be fatal. Mining coal, still our biggest source of electricity, is dangerous and dirty. So when a safe, clean, cheap and abundant alternative - shale gas - is available surely we should exploit it?

Not according to Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary. "Left untouched, the electricity market would allow a new dash for gas, increasing our dependence on a single fuel, and exposing us to volatile prices. It would lock carbon emissions into the system for decades to come."

Whether Mr Huhne likes it or not, a dash for gas is coming. What's more, it is almost all good news. The discovery of how to exploit huge global reserves of gas encased in shale rock is causing epochal change in the energy scene. Shale gas is like any other gas except that it is everywhere: from Poland to Pennsylvania, from Queensland to Sichuan. There is even some in the Wirral and the Weald, but don't hold your breath that the Nimbys will let much be tapped.

America, where the shale gas revolution began, has 50 years, probably more, of increasingly cheap supplies. The US is not just turning away liquefied-natural-gas tankers from Qatar (hence the current low price of gas), but considering turning gas-import terminals over to exports. Shale gas is popular with those who do not like being dependent on Putins and Ahmadinejads, so unpopular with those two martinets. Dreams of a gas Opec, in which Russia and Iran control more than half the world's supplies, are evaporating. Thus, far from increasing dependence on volatile foreigners, a dash for gas means tapping into a diverse world market - especially if we invest in storage facilities.

For a glimpse of a truly scary future dependent on volatile suppliers look no farther than Mr Huhne's favoured technology, wind. Every wind turbine has a magnet made of a metal called neodymium. There are 2.5 tonnes of it in each of the behemoths that have just gone up to spoil my view in Northumberland. The mining and refining of neodymium is so dirty (involving repeated boiling in acid, with radioactive thorium as a waste product), that only one country does it: China. This year it flexed its trade muscles and briefly stopped exporting neodymium from its inner Mongolian mines. How's that for dangerous reliance on a volatile foreign supply?

Besides, wind does nothing to reduce carbon emissions. As Robert Bryce shows in his book Power Hungry, even Denmark, which can switch off imported Norwegian hydro power when the wind spins its many turbines, has failed to save any significant net carbon emissions through wind. The intermittent nature of the wind means that fossil-fuel power stations have to be kept going, or inefficiently powered up and down. Besides, the total power produced from even the biggest wind farms is so small that, as a strategy for reducing carbon emissions significantly, wind power is a failure.

Yes, gas has carbon in it, but half as much as coal for each unit of energy. So a dash for gas to replace coal would dramatically and rapidly reduce carbon emissions. Given Mr Huhne's nuclear allergy, it is probably by far the most effective and low-cost way to do so. Solar is expensive (and strangely inefficient at night); tidal destroys ecosystems; wave is an engineering nightmare; there is no room for more hydro; and biofuels use just as much fossil fuel in their production as they produce in "green" fuel.

Shale gas has environmental risks - the water and chemicals used in the hydraulic "fracking" process must be safely disposed of - but environmental benefits too. Unlike renewables it is not land-hungry, taking up remarkably little space. A typical shale gas well has a footprint one 3,000th of the size of woodland producing the same amount of energy in firewood. Unlike coal and biofuels, it does not require transport by road and rail as it can be piped. Unlike oil, it cannot spill (and though it can explode, it rarely does). Unlike coal, its turbines work at small scale almost as efficiently as at large scale, so power stations can be many and local, supplying heat as well as electricity. It can be burnt near where people need power, requiring less investment in ugly pylons and transmission lines. Unlike coal it does not emit sulphur, mercury or other pollutants.

A few decades of emphasising natural gas at the expense of coal would reduce costs, carbon emissions, pollution, congestion, land use and reliance on volatile regimes as well as keeping the lights on.

The chief reason that living standards shot up in the industrial revolution was cheap energy. Coal had a peculiar property that marked it out from wood, wind and water: it became less costly the more of it you dug up. The drop in the price of energy compared with labour spurred the replacement of toil with automation, thus collapsing the price of fulfilling human needs and desires. Gas looks by far the best way to keep energy cheap and make it cleaner over the next few decades. In your quest for perfect carbon-free energy, Mr Huhne, do not dismiss lower-carbon gas - do not, in Voltaire's phrase, make the best the enemy of the good.