The largest new gas field in a decade, two new giant offshore wind farms, two new gas-fired power plants, but also 27 new shale oil and gas fracking sites could be part of the Government’s new energy mix. Some see this as confrontational. However, the sea also offers a benign source of mass energy. Jon Herbert reports.

Recent tax changes are said to have precipitated Maersk Oil’s £3 billion decision to develop the Culzean oil and gas field, the UK’s largest in the North Sea for a decade, which with reserves of a quarter of a billion barrels could provide 5% of the country’s gas need for 13 years from 2019 onwards.

The announcement contains both good and bad news. Some 400 long-term jobs will be created. However, the new field is still part of a declining industry with depleting reserves that are not being replaced. Maersk, along with other operators, has recently been closing down old platforms.

However, the development of two major offshore wind farms is part of a growing, if cost-challenged, industry. Each will have an installed generating capacity of 1.2GW able to power up to 1.8 million homes and could eventually form part of a vast North Sea green energy network. It will link the UK, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Baltic states, western and even distant eastern European countries that are investing heavily in renewables.

As part of the UK’s evolving energy mix, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has now given planning consent for Dogger Bank Teesside A and B. A UK/Norwegian consortium, Forewind, is expected to develop the farms between 125 and 290 kilometres off the northeast coast. They will create hundreds of jobs and supply chain opportunities. There are expected to be two 200 turbine arrays, eight offshore collection platforms, four accommodation/helicopter platforms and two sets of cables bringing power ashore at Redcar and Cleveland.

As the offshore wind industry works hard to reduce the costs and difficulties of working efficiently in deep metocean waters, the Government has also granted consent for two new gas-fired power plants. They too could generate up to 400 construction jobs, plus some 30 permanent operational posts, near Eye in Suffolk and Aberdare in South Wales. Both units will operate as “peaking” plants to provide power during either a surge in demand or a drop in output from other grid power stations.

Announcing the plants, Energy Minister Lord Bourne commented that, “Gas is the greenest fossil fuel we have; generating electricity with only half the emissions produced by coal.” If developers Progress Power Ltd and Hirwaun Power Ltd do make final planning decisions, the two could have a joint generating power of 299MW.

Unintended about-turn

Ironically, the Government’s policy of deterring further onshore wind power sites by removing financial subsidies and putting final decisions into the hands of local communities could be failing to deter commercially-focused investors.

In her answers to energy and climate change select committee MPs, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd commented during the summer (in July) that, “I have had three separate developers interested in developing (onshore) wind farms without subsidies.”

Adding that they were “large” developers, but giving no further detail, Ms Rudd said energy-efficiency was the most effective win-win way to cut costs and carbon. However, she went on to add that shale gas will be an important part of the UK energy mix and decarbonisation because it is “effectively a low-carbon fuel”. Critics argue that the comparison only holds against coal-fired plants.

Coincidentally, it has been announced that Britain’s last deep-level colliery, Hadfield near Doncaster, will cease production by the end of 2015.

Fracking future

On 6 August, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom visited the IGas site in Doe Green, Warrington to see a hydraulic fracturing site (fracking) at first hand. Her visit is an indication of the Government’s determination to see shale gas used as an energy source that is says will grow local economies, support 64,000 jobs and attract investments of £33 billion. In tandem, the Government has also released three videos with information about shale gas, hydraulic fracturing and how it will be regulated, including decommissioning.

The Oil and Gas Authority has now announced, as part of the 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round, 27 more English locations where oil and gas, including fracking, licences will be offered. They cover sites in the Midlands and Northeast, as well as Lancashire and the Northwest. Twelve companies have been given exclusive rights to explore, including Cuadrilla and Ineos.

A further 132 blocks could be granted after consultations. The Government is also proposing to take steps to speed up fracking planning decisions by local authorities.

North Sea green energy hub

The UK’s east coast wind farms could become part of an international renewable energy trading hub, particularly with Scandinavia in the first instance. However, this will only happen if the right regulatory framework is put in place, says RenewableUK.

The sector organisation has been giving evidence to a House of Lords committee, which finds that the busy North Sea is under industrial and environmental pressure from human activity. The committee points out that the North Sea is the “lifeblood of more than 60 million people” on surrounding shores. A clear strategic and political vision is needed to secure it for future generations and major economic opportunities.

The strategic concept is that an opportunistic mix of geothermal energy from Iceland, Scandinavia hydropower, Baltic renewables, UK wind, tidal barrage and stream energy, plus other European green sources, will be used to balance out fluctuating power demands across a wide European community. One aim is to free the UK and EU from dependency on long pipelines and vulnerable shipping lanes that currently bring gas from less stable parts of the world. Poland, Romania and Bulgaria all have advanced wind industries that will eventually be joined to a community super grid and energy-storage schemes.

Earlier this year, the European Commission made the first of two 2015 calls for proposals under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). This is part of a financing scheme for trans-European energy infrastructure projects designed to end energy isolation and bottlenecks and form an open European energy market. A fully interconnected market is a top priority for the Juncker Commission.

UK projects include electricity/air energy storage projects, plus interconnectors between the UK, Belgium, France, Ireland and Norway. The EU Commissioner for Climate Change Action and Energy, Miguel Arias Cañete, explained that, “Reliable and well-connected energy networks are vital for achieving a resilient European Energy Union. We need major investments to make our energy grid fit for the future.”

The North Sea Offshore Grid, officially known as the North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative (NSCOGI), forms part of expanding networks linking EU states and Norway across Europe’s northern seas. It involves high-voltage direct current cables and includes the concept of utilising Norway’s hydropower plants as a “giant battery” to store excess power on behalf of participating countries ready for re-release when the wind strength drops elsewhere.

Wet and relatively warm

However, that is not the only way that the chilly seas around Britain could yield copious useful natural energy.

Drammen, west of Oslo in Norway, takes much of its base heat to keep homes, businesses and industry warm and working from the cold seas around it. A quick dip in a cold fjord — average annual temperature 8°C — is such a shock that local open water swimmers classify it as “freezing”.

But even cold sea water holds important latent heat that can be extracted with heat pumps using non-carbon coolants like ammonia, rather than the hazardous hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that damage the ozone layer.

Heat pump developments have come a long way since the 1990s. By 2009, Drammen’s population had grown so much that its existing distributed heating system could no longer cope. Today, fjord water at 8°C is used to heat ammonia at four times atmospheric pressure until it boils and evaporates at 2°C. By increasing the pressure from 2bar to 50bar, the evaporated gas is heated to 120°C. This is then used to heat water in the heating system from 60°C to 90°C. Ammonia changes back to a gas and the whole cycle is repeated.

The local authority estimates that more than 85% of the city’s hot water needs come from the system, with savings of €2 million and 1.5 million tonnes of carbon each year if clean electricity is used. This is the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road.

The Glasgow company pioneering the work, Start, is now talking to councils in Newcastle, Durham, Manchester and Stoke. It calculates that the Thames holds enough heat to warm 500,000 homes. Greenpeace’s Doug Parr has commented that he is “mystified as to why there are not more [heat pumps] in the UK.”

Scepter’d isle

In fact, the Department for Energy has calculated that the seas around the scepter’d British Isles, plus canals and rivers, could heat millions of homes across the UK. Its newly published heat map identifies more than 6GW of potential low-carbon heat.

Battersea Power Station’s developers are considering installing a heat pump. However, the National Trust is already running a practical project at Plas Newydd House in Anglesey. The property is considered an ideal test-bed as the Trust does not want the building to get too hot.

Pipes laid into the Menai Straits are filled with a refrigerant heat transport chemical that lifts heat from the sea and releases it into a 300kW, £600,000 heat pump that is expected to save £40,000 in operating costs every year. Again, the fluid is compressed to raise the temperature and heat the house. An expansion valve releases the pressure and the cycle starts again.

The National Heat Map published over the summer shows English rivers with the highest potential for water source heat pumps. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to follow.

Energy minister Lord Bourne says that keeping the lights on and powering the economy is not negotiable. Greenpeace campaigner Daisy Sands says awarding new “fracking” licences is “the starting gun to the fight for the future of our countryside.”

First published by Croner-i on 18/09/2015



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