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The verdict on smart meter privacy, security and health concerns as UK smart meter rollout begins

  • 08 Jul 2014, 10:00
  • Ros Donald

Adapted from a blog originally posted in June 2012

Will the UK government's planned rollout of smart meters leave homes vulnerable to marketing companies desperate for us to overshare information about our most personal habits? Will an information grid linked to energy delivery systems be open to hackers, leaving whole districts vulnerable to disruption? Will smart meters really create a "spy in every home", as the Daily Mail has reported? We take a look at the risks.

Smart meters give people detailed information about how much energy they use and when. The theory is that this can help reduce bills, and level out peak-time stresses on the grid. As such, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is promoting smart meters as a tool for helping the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to ensure one is installed in every home starting this week.

Privacy: will my smart meter be able to track what I do at home?

The short answer is yes - as long as you're using electricity. Energy meters show which appliances use the most electricity so that you can plan energy use effectively. Because of the different ways that appliances use electricity, such data could, for example, reveal whether you use medical devices or baby monitors, or even show the TV programme you're watching. And obviously, it can give information on when you're in or out, or track when you toilet light goes on. So, technically, it might know when you are on the loo.

The Mail reported that this information will be "will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases." Some groups are worried about this. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which tracks privacy issues in Europe, produced a report last week warning that smart meter rollout will " enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do". EDPS is concerned that patterns and profiles could be mined for marketing and advertising, or price discrimination, and is asking the European Commission to consider legislating to protect consumers.

It does sound pretty alarming. However, the government appears to have taken some of these worries to heart already, outlining plans in April designed to ensure consumers have control over how much data they share with suppliers and third parties. 

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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Updated: The science of fracking and earthquakes

  • 04 Jul 2014, 11:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: G Thomasen

Should you worry that fracking will cause earthquakes? The short answer is: probably not.

But as more studies are conducted, researchers are developing their understanding of how the fracking process interacts with seismic activity.

Last year, a widely-cited study concluded that compared to other kinds of mining, fracking usually only causes minor tremors. But two papers in the past twelve months suggest the processes associated with fracking could increase the likelihood of small tremors.

We take a look at the evidence.

Fracking and earthquakes

Hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - involves pumping a fluid made of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure into a drilled well. The fluid creates fractures in the rock, making it possible to extract oil or gas trapped there. So fracking essentially causes minor earthquakes by design, as cracking the rock causes tremors.

But research shows fracking very rarely causes earthquakes people can actually feel. The US Geological Survey found the number of small earthquakes in the USA increased significantly as the fracking industry was developed there. But the vast majority of those earthquakes were "micro" earthquakes registering less than 1 on the  moment magnitude scale - a modern version of the better known Richter scale.

Shale gas exploration is simply not in the "premier league" of serious earthquake causes, says Professor Richard Davies, director of Durham University's Energy Research Institute. Its study of 198 locations showed fracking caused much smaller tremors than other mining processes. Davies has said most fracking induced earthquakes release less energy than someone  jumping off a ladder onto the floor.

Wastewater earthquakes

The Durham study caught the media's attention, with a  swathe of headlines declaring fracking was not a significant cause of earthquakes. But it is worth pointing out that fracking has been linked to some earthquakes that have been felt, if only in three places: one each in Lancashire, the USA, and Canada.

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Explained: Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production

  • 03 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Mat Hope

CC: T Evanson

For half a decade, researchers have tried to answer the question of how much methane escapes from natural gas wells into the atmosphere. The recent emergence of fracking and shale gas has brought the issue to the fore. But studies continue to present varying results. 

Natural gas is mainly methane, some of which escapes during the drilling, extraction, and transportation process. Such outbreaks are known as fugitive emissions.

They're a problem because methane is a potent greenhouse gas - approximately  25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100 year timescale. The issue has been thrown into sharp relief because gas production has undergone a boom in recent years.

The discovery of large amounts of gas locked in shale rock means the US's production has  increased by about 25 per cent in recent years. That's helped  push energy prices down and  reduce the US's emissions. Many other countries are now also keen to explore shale gas's potential, citing the US as an example.

Gas emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal when it's burned, leading some to tout it as a  relatively "clean" fuel. But if fugitive emissions are too high, it makes gas a less attractive fuel for policymakers and industries interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so the question of just how big fugitive emissions are is a pressing one.

Contested evidence

The data is contested. Some people - often advocates of decarbonisation - suggest the fuel is  nowhere near as "clean" as some companies declare. Others - often industry voices - accuse campaigners of  cherry-picking evidence.

There's certainly a wide range of estimates on the extent of the problem.

Estimates of gas production leakage rates are expressed as a percentage of total production. When we looked at this question in 2012, they ranged from 0.6 to four per cent.  

Over the past two years, the upper end of this range has increased. Some studies now suggest the amount of gas leaking from wells could be as high as nine per cent.

We've put some of the key estimates in the chart below:

Fugitive Emissions Bar Chart

Source: Various, see  this Google Doc for details. Graph by Carbon Brief. Note: ^ means value is for unconventional - i.e. shale - gas wells only, * means the value in the graph is the mid-estimate or mean of a range where a 'best estimate' is not given.

So why is there such a range of results?

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Record renewable energy consumption dampens impact of cold weather on UK’s annual emissions

  • 02 Jul 2014, 11:10
  • Mat Hope

CC: Slbs

The UK's energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions both rose in 2012, according to  new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The statistics show that record amounts of low carbon energy dampened the effect of increased consumption on emissions, but failed to cancel out the impact of a cold winter.

Data

Households and businesses consumed 1.2 per cent more energy in 2012 than in 2011, bucking a general trend for declining consumption since 2005 (as the chart below shows). Temperatures one degree celsius lower than a year before were largely responsible for the increase, the ONS says.

ONS Energy Consumption

More fossil fuels were burned to meet the demand, the statistics show. The dashed blue line on the chart below shows the amount energy generated from fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Note how it pretty much mirrors the line on the chart above.

ONS Energy Consumption By Source

Burning coal and gas for power or heat releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Scotland doesn’t have much shale gas, new estimates indicate

  • 30 Jun 2014, 14:31
  • Mat Hope

CC: J Macdonald

Scotland may have some hard to reach shale oil, but not much shale gas, according to new estimates.

A new  study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) released today suggests southern Scotland's Midland Valley may only have a fraction of the shale gas resources thought to be in northern England. The region between Glasgow and Edinburgh may have shale oil resources to rival those supposedly in England's south, however.

The report warns that it is "not yet possible" to ultimately know how much oil and gas Scotland's shale may produce.

How much is there?

BGS used mapping tools and data from existing oil and gas wells to predict the size of the resources. It gives three estimates of how much oil and gas there may be based on the model's results: low, central, and high.

BGS estimates there could be in the range of 49 to 135 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas locked in shale rock in Scotland's Midland Valley. It's central estimate is around 80 tcf - about six per cent of the resource thought to be in Lancashire's Bowland shale. The UK uses about three tcf of gas each year.

BGS Shale Gas Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

While the survey finds there probably isn't much shale gas in Scotland, BGS estimates there could be as much as 11.2 billion barrels oil trapped in the same rock - about 30 per cent more than it recently estimated was in the  Weald Basin in the south of England.The UK uses 535 million barrels of oil each year. It has 3 billion barrels of oil that are currently known to be recoverable.

BGS Shale Oil Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

BGS doesn't offer an estimate of how much oil or gas could eventually be extracted from the rock. Its estimates refer to the oil and gas "in-place" in the shale - the total amount that may be underground. That's  different from a 'reserve' estimate, which tells you how much you might eventually get out of the ground, and will be lower.

BGS emphasises that "some or all of [Midland Valley's oil and gas] might never be produced" in a press release accompanying today's report. That's partly because the region's geology could make it difficult for companies to drill exploratory wells. BGS says the Midland Valley shale rock has "thinner shale packages mixed in with volcanic rocks, faults and abandoned deep coal mine working which make it more complex and are likely to limit where wells can be drilled".

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Why has the government been criticised for paying ‘too much’ for low carbon energy?

  • 27 Jun 2014, 13:23
  • Mat Hope & Simon Evans

CC: Policy Exchange

The government is paying over the odds for eight low carbon energy projects, according to spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO). It says the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has awarded unnecessarily generous subsidies in its haste to confirm the plans.

The NAO's  report led to a  spate of headlines claiming renewable energy projects were receiving  "too much" funding from the government. So what's going on?

Early contracts

The government is introducing a new subsidy scheme for low carbon energy starting in April 2015, known as contracts for difference (CfDs). DECC decided to award early contracts to some projects to ensure there wasn't a gap in investment during the transition between the old scheme and the start of the CfDs. It's the early contracts that the NAO's criticises.

In May 2014, the government signed early contracts for five new windfarms, one biomass plant and to convert part of Drax coal-fired power station to biomass. The projects could provide 4.5 gigawatts of capacity when completed, helping the UK hit its target to get  15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.

But the way DECC handed out these contracts "may have  increased costs to consumers", the NAO says. Its main criticism is that the government awarded the contracts - worth up to £16.6 billion - without any competition.

The CfD scheme means the government agrees a guaranteed price for electricity with power companies, known as the strike price. If the wholesale price of electricity falls below the strike price, the government tops it up, with the cost passed on to consumers. If wholesale prices are above the strike price, companies pay back the difference.

The government will hand out some of the contracts at a  fixed strike price on a first come first served basis. But companies may be forced to bid for contracts later if the scheme is oversubscribed. This could drive down the strike price.

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What EU policy responses to the Ukraine crisis reveal about energy security priorities

  • 26 Jun 2014, 13:00
  • Mat Hope

CC: F Kovalchek

With Russia threatening to  limit the flow of gas through Ukraine's pipelines, energy security has been pushed to the top of the European agenda. But between fracking East Sussex to insulating homes in Riga, policymakers can't seem to agree on the best course of action to secure Europe's energy supply.

We take a look at some proposals and assess if - and how - they contribute to Europe's energy security.

Defining energy security

But what is energy security? One reason there's a plethora of proposals is it doesn't mean just one thing.

Politicians have  three aims when designing energy policy: ensure consistent supply, keep prices stable, and address climate change. If they misjudge their policies, any of those three could go awry and make the system insecure.

Some policymakers are keen for a like-for-like swap - replacing Russia's gas with imports from elsewhere. Others see the potential for a coal revival, or argue that investing in low carbon energy sources is the best plan. Each option could help secure Europe's energy future in a different way, as this table shows:

Energy Security Table Coloured 3

Alternative fossil fuels

One option is to explore shale deposits dotted around Europe and ramp up domestic oil and gas production. Britain's prime minister David Cameron even suggested the UK had a "duty" to get its fledgling shale gas industry up and running in the wake the Ukraine crisis.

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Is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

  • 23 Jun 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Kimon Berlin

Australian coal mining firms are caught in a "perfect storm", the Financial Times reports. They are in deep trouble because coal prices have halved since 2011.

Back home, the UK has a coal problem. Use is up a fifth in four years due in part to low prices and the government has been looking at extending the life of coal plants. German use is up 13 per cent too.

Some are saying the shift to coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, has been at the expense of cleaner gas and nuclear. If it persists it would be a threat to EU plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent in 2030.

So is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

Supply and demand

First, let's take a look at today's coal price and why it has become so cheap.

Coal prices haven't been this low since 2009, as the chart below shows, and have almost halved since a peak in 2011. Over the same period crude oil has remained above the historically unprecedented $100 per barrel level (purple line). So low coal prices aren't being caused by generally weak demand for energy.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 At 16.04.19

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Updated: The UK, Europe, and an energy efficiency revolution

  • 19 Jun 2014, 16:30
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Mohammed Saeed

Update 19/6/14: Uncertainty over the European Commission's preferences for a 2030 energy efficiency target continue. A  leaked impact assessment suggests it favours a binding EU-level reduction of at least 30 per cent with no national targets. But commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and energy commissioner Günther Oettinger are said to favour a non-binding 27 per cent goal.  See paragraph five onwards for updates.

Does Vladimir Putin secretly want you to get your walls insulated? He certainly seems to be doing his best to encourage strong EU energy efficiency legislation.

But if the EU does raise its ambition on energy efficiency as part of its   2030 climate and energy package, UK energy saving policies would also have to become much more ambitious. How big a task would it be to meet an EU energy saving goal, and how would the UK go about it?

Persuasive Putin

EU member states are currently negotiating the details of the 2030 policy package that will set targets for emissions and - maybe - for renewable energy and energy efficiency too.

The UK and many other member states are   against an energy efficiency goal. But Russia's decision on Monday to   shut off gas supplies to Ukraine will have focused minds. The EU currently   spends more than €1 billion per day on imports, a figure that is expected to rise. Russia   supplies about a third of its coal, oil and gas imports. A 40 per cent energy efficiency target   could remove the need to import Russian gas entirely.

European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger is today meeting commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard to discuss efficiency.   Germany and   six other EU member states have backed a binding efficiency target in a   letter sent to the commission. They write:

"The current situation in the Ukraine emphasises the importance of reducing dependence on imported oil and natural gas."

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