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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


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
, 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

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


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  the-times