An American-style shale revolution is a fading dream for Europe


Picture of Rasmus Helveg Petersen
Rasmus Helveg Petersen

Former Danish Minister of Climate and Energy

Can North America’s shale gas revolution be repeated in Europe to become the answer to our dual problem of energy dependency and the need to reduce CO2 emissions? Tempting as a “yes” may be, the answer is more likely “probably not”. As always the case in the energy sector, nothing is simple. No single technology can solve everything, and the wide range of criteria, assumptions and uncertainties make predictions outrageously difficult.

Earlier in this decade, you’d be forgiven for believing that the answer might be “yes”. The shale gas revolution in the U.S. and Canada changed their energy landscape, and was one of the chief reasons why U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped to their lowest level since the mid-1990s. There was also reason to believe that gas was the natural substitute to nuclear energy following the collapse of nuclear power in Japan after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the decisions in some EU countries to start phasing out nuclear power stations. All of this made it seem that gas would be the answer to the West’s energy problems.

Shale gas is not the answer in Europe to the dual challenge of energy security and decarbonisation. Energy Efficiency and renewable energy are – most likely in a partnership with gas

Fast-forward to 2014 and the story of gas becomes much more complex, particularly in Europe. Prices are high and the major supplier of gas to Europe, Russia, is in conflict with its neighbours. Gas has moved from the energy agenda to governments’ national security agendas.

Earlier this year, the EU launched a new European Energy Security Strategy (EESS) whose purpose was clear: Make the EU’s member states less dependent on gas imports from a single outside supplier. And on whether European shale gas exploitation is the way to make Europe less dependent on gas imports, the answer is quite clear: it is not. Shale gas exploitation in Europe – in any case in its infancy – would rather have the role of compensating for declining production of European conventional gas, than replacing imports.

The EESS doesn’t offer a single solution that will solve everything, although as a strategy it does give some clear indications as to what are most likely to be the future solutions.

The EU strategy points out that there are more obvious ways than drilling for shale gas to reduce energy import dependency and at the same time help the atmosphere. The most obvious one is energy efficiency, particularly in the building sector which is responsible for about 40% of energy consumption in the EU and a third of our use of natural gas. According to the European Commission, energy use in buildings could be cut by up to three quarters if the renovation of buildings were to be accelerated.

The commission also recognised that there are significant cost-effective potentials in renewable electricity and renewable heating that would further reduce natural gas use. This is in line with the conclusions of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its Energy Technology Outlook 2014. The IEA says the way forward is to decarbonise supply and shift end-use applications towards electricity as the prime energy carrier.

The fluctuating nature of some of the most important renewable energy sources –wind and solar – implies new challenges. A “systems thinking” becomes a priority and this is where gas re-enters the European energy landscape: Gas has a role to play as the “relatively low carbon emitting” flexible partner of fluctuating renewables.

Electricity is already being based on renewables; in the first quarter of 2014, renewables generated 27% of all electricity in Germany. And in my own country, Denmark, 43% of our domestic electricity supply in 2012 was generated by renewable energy, mostly wind. Recent analysis shows that land-based wind is the cheapest option when establishing new electricity generating capacity.

Shale gas is not the answer in Europe to the dual challenge of energy security and decarbonisation. Energy Efficiency and renewable energy are – most likely in a partnership with gas. But the main path is the use of renewables.

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