Is fracking greener than solar power and wind turbines?

A study has found that on some measures fracking is less damaging to the environment than renewable energy sources, leading to claims that it is greener. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Post your thoughts in the comments below, email or tweet @karlmathiesen

Is fracking greener than solar power and wind turbines? An easy one today... I dont know. From this study it would be improper to draw a conclusion about which energy source causes less environmental damage.

In the end, its all about how you define green. There are some environmental problems that are more closely related to the production of solar panels or wind turbines than shale gas extraction. The reverse is also true. But without proper context this is chalk and cheese.

A spokesman for the UK Onshore Oil and Gas, the shale gas industry body, said charaterising the debate as an either-or comparison between shale gas and renewables was not sensible.

It is not a question of whether solar, wind, shale or even nuclear are the greener sources of energy they are all more environmentally friendly than coal and we need to invest in a mix of all these energy sources to reduce our dependency on the dirtiest fuel of all, coal.

This study has clearly been misrepresented. The only way to compare two technologies is by analysis the full lifecycle cost, which is not the case here. Gas creates CO2 and extraction releases methane over the course of its life. While all studies on wind and solar farms show their CO2 emissions are covered in between 1-3 years.

@guardianeco this is definitely a #qtwtain! On the positive side nor is fracking worse than coal, as is often claimed... @KarlMathiesen

The study does not seem to have properly accounted for the 25-30 life of a solar panel. This dilutes the impact massively @KarlMathiesen

@KarlMathiesen @OfficialUoM Not my specialism, but report is clear that fracking is better AND worse than some renewables AND conventional.

@KarlMathiesen fracking impacts in LCA have huge error bars -- so even when it's better than other energy, you can't be certain

"freedom of the press is important, even if it occassionally leads to silliness." Yep.

More Q and A

To save time, this claim that fracking is greener or more environmentally friendly than wind etc is nothing short of fraud.

There is no evidence to support fracking is less damaging than other technologies and it is close as to whether it is as bad as coal.

Yes, we're certainly not trying to say that shale gas is 'greener' than wind (what does 'green' even mean, really? We can have many different impacts on our environment: it's a complex issue). All we're trying to do is to highlight the idea that we should consider all options on an equal footing, analyse the whole life cycle and see if we can come to an informed conclusion where possible. There are no silver bullet technologies unfortunately - even the better options have downsides.

Interestingly, the major environmental concern related to solar was not investigated in the study. According to the solar industry, the turning over of agricultural land to solar farms is the biggest environmenal public and policy obstacle the industry faces.

In this study, we conduct a desperate search for some metric, any metric, by which shale gas may be said to be "better" than renewables.

Much smaller land area used. There's one that's pretty much indisputable.

Reader Meta101 asked Stamford whether he thought the Times should apologise for misrepresenting his research. They also asked:

What do you think we can do to make the public discussion about fracking more rational, and less emotional? Do you think it [the discussion] needs to be more evidence-based?

Hi Meta101. In response to Q1, I'm not sure how I feel about this really. I think it's a given that many news establishments (national papers and otherwise) will spin topical research to pull in readers and they're all free to take the press releases we issue and say what they want about it - freedom of the press is important, even if it occassionally leads to sillines. The article content itself was basically a description of the work and some quotations from myself and my co-author, so anyone who read the article itself would probably come away with a more balanced view than the headline suggests. However, the headling is a shame, particularly putting 'greener than solar' in quotation marks as if it's quoting the paper.

As for Q2, definitely. The shale debate is almost entirely based on rhetoric and hearsay (although this also applies to most topical issues e.g. nuclear). What we're hoping to do here is simply to add some numbers and some neutral, evidence-based discussion to allow people to make informed judgements.

The Times article was misleading, says study co-author Laurence Stamford. Particularly the headline, which placed the words greener than solar panels in quotation marks.

That makes it look like we are saying that solar panels are all around worse than shale gas, which... is not really what weve said. We are certainly not trying to say that shale gas is greener than renewables.

For certain environmental problems shale is better than solar, whereas for others solar is better than shale.

What we have not done is to work out whether those environmental impacts are particularly significant in a wider context. We can certainly say that one option is better than another for each impact. But we cant say than it is generally greener.

Study author Dr Laurence Stamford has emailed in to tell me he is happy to answer a few questions from readers. So fire away in the comments.

Azapagic and her colleague Laurence Stamford assessed the environmental impacts of eight energy sources on twelve parametres - including greenhouse emissions, toxic pollution, resource depletion and smog creation. Each energy source was compared on a per kilowatt hour basis. On six of the twelve parametres, either solar or wind or both were found to created more damage than fracking.

In the official press release for the study, co-author Adisa Azapagics said the impacts of fracking could vary widely.

Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas.

Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates.

From the government policy perspective focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.

Researchers at Manchester University have found that fracking causes less toxicity to humans and marine ecosystems and uses less resources than solar panels and wind turbines.

Their study, which measured the environmental impacts of fracking and compared it to other energy sources, prompted a story in the Times under the headline: Fracking greener than solar panels.

Fracking to extract shale gas can be less environmentally damaging than installing solar panels or offshore wind turbines, a study has found,

Some of the impacts of solar power are actually relatively high, so it is not a complete surprise that shale gas is better in a few cases. This is mainly because manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a country like the UK, as we dont have as much sunshine.

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