Power Culture

This blog is becoming a bit of a signpost to other blog posts I’ve written. RegenSW asked me to write a couple of pieces for its new blog “Power Culture: exploring our energy generation through the arts”. Naturally, I wrote about Particulart and Didcot Power Station.

  1. Energy infrastructures inhabit our interior landscapes
    I am almost certain that Didcot Power Station’s looming bulk sparked my interest in energy and shaped my environmental interests and career. But I am not the only person which it has sensitised. Many regard it as a blot on the landscape, many others have seen its sculptural appeal.
  2. The art of knitting, chemistry, and gentle protest
    It took me 44 years to learn to follow the energy, so here’s the story of how Particulart sparked and took on its own energy…

Didcot Power Station, art installation

Didcot Power Station was commissioned shortly before I was born and dominated the landscape of my childhood. I am fairly sure that its looming bulk sparked my interest in energy, and possibly shaped my environmental interests and career. And now, one of my interests is environmental art, including the subset that is the art related to energy production and supply.

I know that as part of General Studies during my lower sixth year, I had to write about the architecture of four buildings, and I chose Didcot as one of the four. I wrote about its aesthetics – the shape of the cooling towers, the site layout – although now I know that I missed a few angles. Since then I have been sensitive to articles about it, unsurprisingly not always positive, and have seen one or two art pieces using Didcot as a model. But only now that it is in the process of being demolished, have I investigated a little more thoroughly.

Didcot Power Station* was built in the late 1960s to meet the rapidly growing demand for electricity. Most of the other stations built at the time were located close to coalfields or on major rivers. Didcot was unusual, built in a rural area that was highly regarded for its natural beauty in order to be close to sources of demand and reduce transmission losses. This meant that more attention was paid to its aesthetics than were to, for example, the slightly later Drax.

Historic England’s assessment of Didcot as a candidate for listing is my prime source of information about the design.

At the time, the CEGB built stations to a standard template, but had to preserve local amenity and submit its proposals to the Royal Fine Art Commission for approval. As architect it appointed Frederick Gibberd, whose previous work included Harlow New Town and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. His brief was to maintain the views across the Vale of the White Horse, and covered the layout, cladding materials, the colour scheme, hard landscaping and planting.

My mother has written a few maths text books.

My mother has written a few maths text books.

Gibberd modelled the site from four viewpoints, considering differing numbers, sizes and groupings of cooling towers. Henry Moore had a small role in the design when it came to the Royal Fine Art Commission, moving the towers around to create a good composition. The final solution used six cooling towers of standard height and hyperbolic swoop.** The towers were divided in two groups of three, as widely spaced as possible at either end of a NW-SE axis across the site, with the rest of the plant equidistant between them.

Gibberd considered colouring the plant and towers in cream, biscuit, white and dark green, but chose to use a “muted palette of colours to create an even grey tone over the whole composition”. He worked with landscape architect Brenda Colvin on the site planting. The lower buildings and coal yard were screened, but Colvin felt the towers “were a significant feature of the landscape – giant eye-catchers”, and so the planting did not attempt to screen them but provided a setting and a balance to open up the views.

Roger Wagner, “Menorah”, 1993

The first artistic reponse to Didcot that I was aware of was “Menorah” by Roger Wagner, in which he uses a view of the six towers and chimney as a back-drop to the crucifixion drama. He writes: “When I first saw Didcot power station through the window of a train from Oxford to Paddington, the smoke belching from the central chimney reminded me more of a crematorium than a symbol of God’s presence. And yet having said that, the astonishing sky behind the towers looked like the arch of some great cathedral, while something in the scale of the cooling towers themselves, with the light moving across them and the steam slowly, elegiacally, drifting away, created the impression that they were somehow the backdrop of a great religious drama.”

But Wagner was not the first to respond. According to Historic England, “An evocative cultural appreciation by Marina Warner and entitled Didcot Power Station, 1970 (BBC Elstree, 1990) formed one of a series of short documentary films relating to building history produced by the BBC.” I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know how to obtain a copy.

Even earlier, in 1966 during construction of the power station, Sir John Betjeman lamented the defacing of rural England in Inexpensive Progress: “Encase your legs in nylons, / Bestride your hills with pylons / O age without a soul; … And if there is some scenery, / Some unpretentious greenery, / Surviving anywhere, / It does not need protecting / For soon we’ll be erecting / A Power Station there.” He doesn’t name Didcot, but Betjeman located other poetry in the area, most famously “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!”

On a (possibly) more positive note, Sir Tim Rice wrote the lyric Ode to Didcot Power Station for the musical Three More Men in a Boat (1982). I couldn’t find it online, but I confess I didn’t look very hard. Here instead are a few lines from Kit Wright’s 2005 Ode to Didcot Power Station: ” DIDCOT! To one more / Soft eidolon thou steams’t ope mem’ry’s door… / For in thy hanging shrouds I view return / Far other blue-grey clouds;”

Seeing Didcot’s towers once more from the train also prompted memories for a former master of Keble College Oxford who, writing under the pseudonym John Elinger, won a poetry prize in 2009 for The Cooling Towers at Didcot. But later in the poem he writes: “Technology’s half / Life seems so short. The towers must go, / They say.” And indeed, in 2014 and 2015, the towers are being demolished.

…which is why, when a glimpse of the towers is no longer a vehicle for memory, documentary photographic evidence is so important. The Social landscape of Didcot, a Facebook page of Paul Bodsworth’s photographs “capturing moments… and interesting aspects of life in Didcot… using composition that challenges mainstream photography and viewers alike”. He started photographing Didcot at the end of March 2012, one year before its decommissioning and “the Power station stops creating its plumes of steam and falls quiet.” I don’t know whether photography is art, but this image of the first demolition in July 2014 in particular tells a story.


Barbaresi & Round’s 1:1 scale model of a cooling tower section

During the three months prior to its decommissioning, Rachel Barbaresi & Susanna Round were appointed as resident artists at Didcot, funded by RWE npower and South Oxfordshire District Council. In their blog Where clouds are made, they describe their visits to the station, conversations with workers past and present, their impressions internal and external, investigations into Gibberd’s design, and the relationship of the power station with the town of Didcot. All of this is included in their ‘work’: “Through the project we want to explore how the power plant and cooling towers have come to play an imaginative role in the sense of place for Didcot residents and beyond.” But their residency culminated with an exhibition at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot during May-June 2013.

Barbaresi & Round’s blog mentions James Attlee’s role as Writer on the Train for First Great Western, and his post about passing and photographing Didcot on his daily commute to London. Unfortunately, Attlee’s original post is now unavailable, probably because it is now in book form.

The blog also briefly describes their work with the film maker Martyn Bull. Bull’s sound and video recordings of the power station became a sound installation in the Cornerstone exhibition. Thankfully, Bull’s work How beautiful can a power station sound? is still available.

Finally, Barbaresi & Round quote from Marina Warner’s reflection on Didcot as her 1991 contribution to the BBC series Building Sights, which again seems not to be available. The towers “symbolise heedless, overflowing consumption with an ironic economy of form” and, echoing Shelley’s Ozymandius, like monuments “they contain the promise of ruin”.

Historic England refused the listing because, although Gibberd’s design has “strong resonance”, Didcot conformed too much to standards and policies. And so… at 5.01am on 27 July 2014, the three southern cooling towers were demolished.

Through the news reporting, I became aware of the work of Patrick Cannon, abstract paintings which preserve Didcot in its setting of natural beauty. But I would say that the final piece of art associated with Didcot, for the time being at least, is the performance art of the demolition itself. This BBC video starts with the collapse in reverse, and the three towers spring to life before crumpling into dust. Solid blocks deform as ripples of fabric. The closest tower blows a smoke ring as they collapse in situ, in the place Where clouds [of dust] are made.


* The original power station was coal-fired, and is now known as Didcot A since the gas-fired Didcot B was built in the 1990s. I’m using Didcot throughout to refer to Didcot A.

** I vaguely recall reading that Didcot’s hyperbolae were modified, so the towers are more pleasing in shape than say Drax’s, but can’t find anything to back this up.


Particulart, or the art of knitting, chemistry, meditation and gentle protest

The politics

The first Particulart exhibition was a collaboration between Diana Moore and myself, running in the Exeter Real Food café from Monday 13th October to Saturday 29th November 2014. Particulart is all about knitting. It’s also all about the Exeter Incinerator, which was inaugurated on 16th October 2014, and about waste management strategy, and monitoring emissions, and the environment, and health, and transparency, and visual impact, and chemistry.

The Incinerator had already happened, and we couldn’t change that. But we want to make sure it is operated properly, and knitting and emitting particles was our way of telling other people about it and its potential impacts. Hence the timing of the exhibition, and the exhibition launch party the evening before the Incinerator’s inauguration.

As we were preparing the exhibition, Brooks Newmark, in his first major speech as the new minister for civil society, said: “We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics… The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.” Mr Newmark, as well as being patronising, clearly doesn’t know his knitters very well. I expect there were a few tricoteuses cackling when his head metaphorically rolled into the basket three weeks later. We just laughed, tweeted the link, and carried on with our knitting and politics… although, broadly speaking, I did the knitting and exhibition and Diana did the politics and launch.

Diana composed a letter to Devon Council and Exeter City Councillors, inviting them to the exhibition launch and making a number of requests:

  • increased transparency to enable peace of mind on public health and the environment – that is, enhanced monitoring and public reporting of emissions
  • a commitment to waste reduction and recycling – including better information, and composting instead of incineration of food waste
  • increased transparency over the contract – including information about the cost to the tax payer, value for money, cost of operation, profit

We waited for their response, Diana wrote a press release and dealt with local media, and I continuing knitting and planning the exhibition hanging.

The Incinerator’s official name is the Marsh Barton Energy from Waste / Energy Recovery Facility, which makes it sound all nice and positive: all that waste just going to waste, and we can generate electricity and heat from it. But the beast needs feeding, and what if Devon County Council were fined if it couldn’t provide enough waste to operators Tiru and Viridor? The County Waste Manager states that “The [Exeter] plant has been sized to ensure that there will always be sufficient waste to feed it and as such there are no plans to have to restrict recycling to feed the plant or bring waste from further afield”, but also acknowledges the “concern that a degree of complacency [over recycling] may occur given Exeter’s waste would no longer be going to landfill but would be used to generate energy”. An incinerator is an incentive to generate more waste, rather than to reduce, reuse or recycle. And burning 1 tonne of waste generates on average about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide, so what if that electricity from waste displaced a lower-carbon alternative? And what if there were problems with its operation, so it emitted harmful, even toxic, pollution? Much of Exeter, not least Devon County Council’s offices, are downstream in a prevailing wind.

The artwork

Particulart comprised my 3D knitted representations of a series of particles that the Incinerator would inevitably emit, such as carbon dioxide, and that it shouldn’t emit, such as toxic dioxins and furans.

We also commissioned three new works from photographer Benjamin J Borley. The Incinerator is located on the corner of Grace Road South and Alphin Brook Road, on the edge of Marsh Barton Trading Estate next to the railway, Exeter Canal, and Riverside Valley Park. It all sounds as though it should be lovely and bucolic. But the Trading Estate certainly isn’t, and now the Valley Park is dominated by a hulking grey industrial armadillo. And the red light at the top of its chimney is visible from miles around, day and night – Sauron’s malevolent eye at the top of the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr.

In his studies, Ben beautifully captured the monolithic nature of the building, and its juxtaposition with the neighbouring green space. It stands both separate and other from its context, yet negatively impacts upon it. Ben used an infra-red filter in one photo, which turns vegetation a polluted pink. In another, the early light gives the Incinerator an almost radioactive glow. And in the final of the three studies we used, the building dwarfs the human scale of a team of local media.

By contrast, the knitted particles are homely, warm and comfortable, approachable, innocent, and non-threatening.

Each particle is made up of a number of atoms and bonds knitted in acrylic yarn. The design follows the ball and stick model and the CPK colour scheme used in chemistry. So carbon is black, mercury and other metals are grey, oxygen is red, hydrogen is white, nitrogen is blue, fluorine is light-green, chlorine is mid-green, bromine is dark green, and sulphur is yellow. I stuffed the atoms with those plastic bags that charities keep dropping through the letterbox, and stiffened the particles with coathanger wire.

The materials used are not natural and beautiful. The yarn is manufactured from oil not natural fibres. The plastic bags and wire are, well, plastic bags and wire. The carbon footprint of the particles, including yarn, bags and wire, is just over 5kg CO2, equivalent to a couple of burgers. However, as only a fraction of charity plastic bags are actually used to collect bric-a-brac, and it can be difficult to recycle wire coathangers, reusing them keeps a few at least out of the Incinerator.


Particulart encompasses the senses of sight, through Ben’s photos worth a thousand words, and of touch. Knitting epitomises the material relationship between human being and things. It references the handmade, and the clothing which sits next to the skin and expresses our personalities. Particulart takes both the maker and the audience on a journey from data and scientific thought to the more tactile areas of the brain. So it is not just about thinking, but about doing and experiencing, as life must be.

Like other old skills coming back into vogue, knitting is a model of thrift, of making and mending. Old knitted garments can be darned, or unravelled and made anew. Reuse and recycling is creative; incineration is destructive. And yet Particulart subverts craft and chemistry. The particles are not useful, unlike warm woolly jumpers, socks or tea cosies. Nor is a toxic dioxin cuddly, unlike its 3D knitted representation (at least before I stiffened it with wire for hanging).

Particulart is also countercultural. The making of it required a certain slowness, presence in the moment and attentiveness. There are no short cuts to knitting a particle. Each stitch must be stitched, sometimes more than once if I made a mistake! At times it became a meditative practice, each stitch a mantra akin to the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha”, which occupied my surface rational brain and allowed contemplation in the depths. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue. While the act of assembling data and information about the particles increased knowledge of the issue, the act of making led to a deeper care and concern about the issue, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and respond to the exhibition.

The concept of the exhibition emerged with a certain slowness. It all began with a cup of tea and general chitchat in the Real Food café in March 2013. Diana floated the idea of knitting molecules to leave around Exeter. I was interested and immediately started investigating the emissions from incinerators, but it wasn’t until July that I started looking into chemistry models and knitting patterns. With Diana’s encouragement, I prototyped a carbon dioxide, which was too big and time-consuming to knit, so I experimented with reducing the pattern. In September, we met again to discuss a new idea of displaying the particles in a gallery before ’emitting’ them into the community, the latest on Incinerator launch dates, and avenues for publicity.

It is important that there were two of us involved from the beginning. Together we could take ideas for a walk, and find that we had voices which were saying “we can do something”, and that we could be voices. The writer Betsy Greer coined the portmanteau word ‘craftivism’ in 2003, and defined it as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite”. In knitting, Diana and I had found a gentle way of creating an opening to get our message heard.

Particulart thereafter became a means of opening out the conversation and creating a community of interest.

Diana joined the Incinerator’s Liaison Committee, as a local resident, and the conversation extended to the construction companies, their PR, councillors and other members of the committee. Diana was invited to the inauguration, and we invited the Committee to our launch, which led to one of the most positive responses we had to the exhibition. One of the subcontractors who attended the launch told us they were used to attending shouty aggressive protests, which did little beyond alienating people. Our gentle protest made him much more interested in engaging, and he liked the potential for educating the public too.

Diana and I talked to other knitters who wanted to participate, to our friends, to members of the Politics department at the University, and to other artists in Exeter, as well as to the Real Food store who kindly hosted the exhibition. Then there were the networks and conversations that happened and are still happening on social media, Twitter in particular. And last but not least there were the interactions arising from the exhibition and its making: between the maker and the made, between the particles and Ben’s photos, and between the exhibition and its audience.

Diana crocheted a basket of PM2.5 (tiny clumps of carbon which cause havoc in the lungs) for giving away to people at the exhibition launch and the Incinerator inauguration, and leaving on the tables in the café during the exhibition. They went far and wide from the launch, and were a big hit with Viridor staff at the inauguration. At the end of the exhibition, we found only one left in the café. Who knows where the others went, and what conversations they prompted.

Kaleider is an arts production studio in Exeter that produces some really interesting work arising from the question “What can we do together that we cannot do apart?” They make art that interrupts the dominant narratives in our society: “We want to make interruptive gifts; we want to create experiences where those dominant narratives are problematised for a moment; to provoke a moment of reflection; to tell a counter story; to design different narratives.” The art is about encounter, where the work meets the audience and ‘forces’ interaction in a joyful, playful and engaging way. I got to know Kaleider after the exhibition, but it seems to me that serendipitously by showing Particulart in a café we did something similar. In any case, producing “interruptive gifts” is a good aim for the future. Here are a few of the comments and tweets we received:

  • I do like a bit of #knitted art over coffee.
  • I was drinking my tea at Real Food, when I noticed a knitted particle on the table, then I realised I was surrounded by organic chemistry.
  • Had a sneak preview. Looks amazing. Do go along and see something you will never have seen before.

It also strikes me that engaging with Particulart required as much slowness as the making of it did. And therefore an independent café, where time is slowed and the audience is relaxed, is the ideal location for an encounter with a bunch of knitted chemistry with a message. Maybe its impact wasn’t instant, but perhaps in conversation and subsequent reflection it formed and refined and sunk in and was digested and will be long-lasting.


But is it art? Nowadays, the art of ideas jostles alongside the art that imitates the world. Although Particulart does represent the molecular building blocks of the world, it primarily reflects on the culture and society in which we live, exploring the issues and effects of consumerism and accountability: the production and treatment of waste, the interactions between humans and rest of our environment, and even the disjunction between science and the rest of culture.

In an episode of “What Do Artists Do All Day?” screened in November 2014, the Chapman Brothers said that in some of their work they were “trying to just ruin the assumption that art has some progressive motion to it. And we think that by doing things like flower arranging and knitting that in some ways we can undermine the heroic nature of making art. We can just turn it into something prosaic.” Their position supports the notion that knitting can be art, even if it is phrased somewhat pejoratively. But does it differ from the use of craft in activism? Perhaps other craftivism goes further in explaining its purpose, meaning and demands. We produced an interpretative board and website that outlined our requests, and this blog is overly explicative, but I think and hope the exhibition also allowed space for interpretation. Anyway, I suspect that question doesn’t matter because craftivism is art anyway.

Either way, some “real artists” (as I call them) in Exeter received Particulart as art, which is good enough for me. And Matt Harvey, the local Wondermentalist, also commented that the particle name “2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin” was poetry in its own right, which was an added bonus.

So now what?

Diana is continuing to hold Devon County Council to account. The set of Incinerator particles is available to other protest groups on loan. Except, that is, for my out-size prototype carbon dioxide, which we will one day soon give away via Free Art Friday. Maybe we could go into schools and teach pupils how to skpo and kfb as a means of introducing them (and their teachers) to the issues.

I am developing the Particulart concept further to encompass further issues and more chemistry. “A Stitch in Time” is on the subject of climate change, and is being exhibited in Bristol Cathedral during Lent 2015. This Wednesday, 25th February, I am giving a talk in Exeter (I have reused my title as the title of this blog) and I would like to do more speaking and writing about the concept and the issues.

But I will leave the last word to my favourite tweet: “I wish I could adequately describe how happy I am that knitted molecular chains are an actual thing.”


Where have we put our treasure?

Following my article on fracking for Third Way, Operation Noah asked me to write a short piece for its Bright Now blog on divestment from fossil fuels. Here it is…

In a Resurgence article based on his latest book The Energy of Nations, Jeremy Leggett gives the history of four systemic risks in energy markets: climate change and the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground; the resulting carbon bubble in capital markets; corporate losses in US shale gas and oil production, which means the ‘boom’ may just be a bubble; and peak production of affordable oil.

Expanding on the second risk, he writes: ‘Over the next 10 years, spending [by the world’s 200 biggest gas and oil companies on expanding and developing their reserves] could exceed US$6 trillion, if things stay as they are. This is one very big bet the policymakers will do nothing about climate change. In the last year, key investors have balked at that bet. Major insurers and pension funds have curbed their investment in coal and oil.’ State pension funds in Norway and Sweden have said they would ‘withdraw from all fossil-fuel investments, for fear of assets being stranded’. Australian coal investments are under huge pressure, as China develops legislation to ban coal use. ‘Investors arguing that capital expenditure was too high and dividends were too low forced Shell to cancel all Arctic drilling in 2014.’ And hence, ‘Investors may increasingly be setting up future emissions reductions by default [for climate policymakers].’

So divestment makes sense in two ways: it works, and every divestment, however small, adds to the momentum; and it makes financial sense to join the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association and the University of Glasgow and pull out before the crash!

It is not as though alternative investments aren’t available. I recently wrote an article for Third Way magazine about fracking, in which I argued ‘Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction … A second “dash for gas” would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now.’ For individuals, the Which? Ethical Investments Guide and YourEthicalMoney.org provide independent information on green and ethical money, including investments, banking, pensions and insurance. And for those looking for a social return on their investment, there are plenty of opportunities to invest in community energy schemes – from Abingdon Hydro via REPOWERBalcombe to Zouch Solar, which I may have made up!

Some of the responses on Twitter to Glasgow University’s announcement are interesting. A couple argue that divesting is ‘futile symbolism’ unless the University also stops using fossil fuels, and I think they partly have a point.

In my fracking article, I concluded that the UK government’s keenness to promote fracking is about money and power: ‘[George] Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the government and the fracking industry.’ But I also had to acknowledge our own culpability. ‘There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking “in my back yard”, and our energy-hungry lifestyles … We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted.’

Money equals power, and giving the fossil fuel companies our money, whether as investment or payment for energy, means giving them power. I am happy to say that I bank with Co-op, buy my energy from Good Energy, and am at present car-free. But as a participant in the UK economy, I am still locked in to fossil fuels, and spending money on almost anything means oil production and carbon emissions.

The Christian Climate Action group asks What Would Jesus Divest?* But I asked ‘[W]here have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart?’ (Matthew 6:19-21) Do we see ourselves deep-down as consumers and individuals, or citizens and neighbours and members of the body of Christ seeking God’s Kingdom? After all, the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13:44) is not a pocket of shale gas to be exploited, but rather, as R. S. Thomas suggested in The Bright Field, ‘the eternity that awaits you’ … or perhaps we might say it is a ‘Bright Now’.

* It would perhaps be more accurate to ask what would the women providing for Jesus divest? See Luke 8:1-3.


What the frack?

Published in Third Way, October 2014

Third Way

Depending who you ask, hydraulic fracturing – fracking – is either a panacea for our energy crisis or an environmental apocalypse in waiting. Clare Bryden drills through the propaganda in search of some answers.

Fracking has been a controversial news story since the protests at Balcombe in West Sussex against test drilling by Cuadrilla Resources in August 2013. In July this year, it knocked even the Middle East from the top of the news agenda when the Government announced the 14th Landward Licensing Round, opening up half of the UK to shale oil and gas exploration.1

Notably, it had refused to rule out fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites. New planning rules, also announced, stipulate that licences would be granted in these areas only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ if ‘it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’, and give the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles the right to overturn planning decisions. But environmental campaigners are a suspicious group, and took the view that the rules allow Pickles the automatic right to overrule local authorities who reject an application, thereby actually making it easier for developers.

Here as elsewhere, much heat was generated – but what is the truth of the matter? Is fracking good or bad?


Gas production in the North Sea is in decline, and to continue to meet demand, it needs to be supplemented with imports of natural gas or shipped-in liquefied natural gas (LNG), or with alternative sources.

Shale oil and gas is tightly locked into very finegrained rock. ‘Fracking’ is a short-hand for hydraulic fracturing of the rock. The technique was developed in the US, where it has boosted oil production and driven down gas prices. It involves drilling a well vertically down, then horizontally into the shale layer. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the rock at high pressure, creating fissures, and allowing the oil or gas to flow out through the well.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has identified abundant potential reserves of shale oil and gas across swathes of the UK, especially the north of England, the Midland Valley of Scotland, and the Weald Basin in southern England.2 Assuming that 10 per cent can be extracted, shale gas could meet the UK’s gas needs for more than 40 years. But there’s the rub. As the BGS notes, its estimate ‘represents the gas that we think is present, but not the gas that might be possible to extract… [which] depends on the economic, geological and social factors that will prevail at each operation.’


From thousands of wells in the US, companies have not extracted more than 5 per cent.3 US technology has been found not to work on Polish geology, even though Poland was thought in Europe to be the most likely to replicate the US success.4 The UK shale gas industry is in its infancy, and there is no reliable understanding of the geological factors without a programme of drilling and testing.

Again, even in the US, the economics do not necessarily stack up. Drilling is expensive, and because yields from shale wells typically halve in four months,5 ever more wells must be drilled just to maintain production. According to Jeremy Leggett, ‘Oil and gas companies drilling American shale today spend a collective dollar and a half for every dollar of oil and gas income’.6

Leggett also comments drily on the social factors: ‘Anyone who knows the extent of necessary industrialisation at a fracking sweet spot in America, and who also knows the sentiments of rural England, knows that it will be impossible to replicate the American shale boom in the UK.’ Which brings us back to the impacts of fracking on the environment.


An environmental report produced for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), as part of its consultation on licensing proposals, considered the effects of ‘between 30 and 120 well pads being developed (each having between 6-24 wells and occupying up to 3 hectare of land per pad)’.7 It is difficult to conceive a well pad development the size of three Trafalgar Squares not having an impact on the countryside.

About one-tenth of the area now open for licensing is covered by the National Park or other protections. The rules covering the remainder of the country are unchanged. But I would argue that any local landscape and green space has value and needs conserving. Landscape is formative, the land is our heritage. Why else would we be so protective of our ‘backyard’, and the issue be so emotive?

Beneath our backyard, two minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011 were seized on by campaigners as indicative of the dangers of fracking. A DECC report co-authored by the BGS concluded that test drilling by Cuadrilla was responsible and that further small earthquakes cannot be ruled out, but that the risk is low and structural damage extremely unlikely.8


Of greater concern is water, both the amount required for production and the risk of pollution and contamination of fresh water aquifers. Globally, fresh water is a more valuable resource than oil or gas. It is essential for life.

Each fracking well requires between 10,000 and 30,000 cubic metres of water. Over a decade of operation, this is equivalent to the amount needed to run a small coal-fired power station for just 12 hours. Even when multiplied up by hundreds of wells, the figures are therefore not exceptional. Nevertheless, water companies are required to produce a long-term water resource plan with contingency reserves in case of a drought, and will assess the amount of water available before providing it to fracking operators.9

The operators must declare the chemicals used in drilling and fracking to the environmental regulator, which assesses them for hazards on a case-by-case basis. Some of the water may return to the surface as flowback fluid, and the operator must dispose of this safely. Movement of flowback fluid by tanker may be an issue on local roads.


The risk of methane in drinking water is one of the most sensitive questions over fracking. The videos of people lighting the water coming out of their taps are somewhat unsettling.

According to mapping by the BGS and the Environment Agency, almost all the shale gas resource in England and Wales lies beneath at least one aquifer. An independent review by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering considered the most likely cause of contamination to be faulty wells drilled through aquifers, and recommended well examination by independent specialists. It also found that the risk of fractures reaching overlying aquifers is very low if extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres.10 The Environment Agency says it will refuse permission to developments if they are too close to supplies of drinking water.11

So far, then, it seems that the visual impact of fracking on the landscape is likely to be unacceptable. The local environmental risks should be manageable if robust regulation is introduced and enforced, although this is a big ‘if’, as ministers have rejected calls in the UK for specific regulation and defeated EU proposals.12


But what of the carbon footprint of shale gas, and can it, as claimed, be a bridge to a low-carbon future?

To have an even chance of keep global warming below 2°C, and avoid dangerous climate change, world carbon emissions must peak before 2020 then steadily decline. The total amount of carbon we can afford to emit is very small compared with the carbon content of coal, oil and gas reserves still in the ground. Countries, companies and individuals are therefore looking for low or zero-carbon alternatives.13

The UK has so far managed to meet its carbon targets largely through a ‘dash for gas’ replacing coal in electricity generation. DECC expects a second dash in the next few years, the share of renewables to increase steadily to 40 per cent by 2030, and new nuclear stations and coal and gas-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage to come online from about 2025.14 So the government argues that shale gas could be an important bridge to help secure energy supplies until renewable energy capacity increases, while being a cleaner replacement for coal in the generation mix.


Anti-fracking campaigners point to a Cornell University study which found high methane leakage from fracking wells, giving shale gas a higher greenhouse gas footprint than coal. However, DECC’s chief scientific adviser considers this study to be an outlier. If adequately regulated – again, note the ‘if’ – local emissions should be only a small proportion of the shale gas footprint, which is similar to conventional gas, lower than LNG and significantly lower than coal.15

It seems clearer that UK shale gas cannot be considered a bridging fuel because of timescales. The chief executive of Cuadrilla has said it would take two or three years to drill enough test wells to determine whether commercial extraction is viable, and large-scale production would be unlikely to start for several years.16 Other commentators look to China, where the barriers to the industry are relatively low but significant production is still eight to ten years away, and consider timescales of fifteen to 20 years to be more realistic.17


Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction. A 2009 report by National Grid found that biogas, produced predominantly from waste, had the potential to supply 5-18 per cent of total UK gas demand by 2020.18 The most optimistic forecast expects shale gas to fulfil at most 5 per cent of gas demand by 2030.19 In terms of contribution to electricity generation – and gas is far too versatile a fuel to be wasted in this way – Germany has already shown that renewable capacity is capable of expanding rapidly.

Even in the UK, renewable electricity capacity grew by 27 per cent in 2013 and renewables contributed 15 per cent to generation, while heat from renewable sources grew by 19 per cent.20 The Government is now trying to limit subsidies paid to solar farms, because they are growing too rapidly.21

Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock claimed in July that shale gas will bring jobs and growth, which is supported by the Institute of Directors’ estimate that it could attract annual investment of £3.7 billion and support up to 74,000 jobs.22 But according to research by the Renewable Energy Association, launched by the then Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, the UK renewables industry was already worth £12.5 billion and supported 110,000 jobs in 2010/11, with 400,000 in total required to meet the UK’s renewables targets in 2020.23


A second ‘dash for gas’ would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now. It would also lock the UK into an future of uncertain gas prices and supplies on global markets, as DECC expects the UK will need to import 70 per cent of consumption by 2025.24 That figure dwarfs the 5 per cent maximum contribution by shale gas, and almost mocks Hancock’s claim that shale gas has the potential to provide us with greater energy security.

Moreover, as the chair of Cuadrilla Lord Browne pointed out: ‘We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price.’25 So much for the insistence by David Cameron and George Osborne that shale gas would drive energy prices down and reduce household energy bills to the benefit of the fuel poor.

Instead of rhetoric on shale gas, what the UK needs is a truly sustainable energy policy that challenges the status quo; that is underpinned by conservation and decarbonisation; that invests in energy efficiency; that makes as sparing and smart use of fossil fuels and nuclear as possible; that seriously considers the potential of decentralised electricity grids, and invests in demand side management and storage alongside increased ‘home grown’ renewable generation; and that seriously considers the potential of renewable biofuels, consistent with sustainable food and waste policies.


Why, then, is the UK Government so keen to promote fracking, when the Scottish Government has recently supported residents’ rights to oppose it26 and many countries in Europe have banned it?

The Government has announced an extraordinary range of financial incentives to fracking companies, local councils and communities: a 30 per cent tax rate for onshore shale gas production, well below the top rate of 62 per cent on new North Sea oil operations;27 altering planning fees to account for only the above-ground area, rather than the entire area of underground drilling;28 allowing local councils to keep 100 per cent of business rates from fracking operations rather than 50 per cent;29 payments to local councils and communities of £100,000 per site and 1 per cent of revenues from any successful wells.30

It is also making protest more difficult, rushing through planning reforms which mean that homeowners will no longer be individually notified of a planning application for drilling or fracking beneath their home,31 and changing trespass laws, so that companies are granted access to run pipes through land below 300m from the surface.32


Yet it knows that public support for fracking is weak. DECC’s latest survey of attitudes towards its priorities found that 80 per cent supported renewable energy and 59 per cent would be happy to have a large scale renewable energy development in their area, whilst only 29 per cent supported shale gas extraction. The survey did not ask respondents whether they would be happy to have a fracking development in their area.33

Nor will the Government’s refusal to rule out fracking in National Parks and AONBs endear it to its backbench MPs in rural constituencies.

I can only conclude that it is about money and power. Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the Government and the fracking industry. Campaigners have named five non-executive directors working within government departments who have fracking interests, including the Cuadrilla chair Lord Browne,34 and six members of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee which published a report on ‘The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil’.35 The new chair of the Environment Agency has also had links to the fracking industry.36

All interests are declared and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, nor do any of the five non-execs sit in DECC, but it is no wonder that the anti-fracking action camps at Balcombe and elsewhere are called ‘Reclaim the Power’.


Alastair McIntosh in ‘Soil and Soul’ describes a model for activism of naming the Powers, unmasking the Powers and engaging the Powers. All power ultimately comes from God, but expressed through human agency is fallen. Naming the Powers makes the invisible visible. Unmasking the Powers exposes their effects on life, for example their sanctioning of violence. Only then should the Powers be engaged, not through meeting violence with violence, because that is legitimising the Powers, but by challenging and redeeming the Powers.

We must hold our Government to account, reminding them that we live in a democracy and they work for us. One obvious way is to use our vote next year. We can also write to our local councils, MPs or members of the Lords. But we should not assume that the Powers are all in Government and have already been named and unmasked. We are also culpable.

There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking ‘in my back yard’, and our energy-hungry lifestyles. One of the more helpful contributions to the fracking debate has come from the Bishop of Chichester, who questioned whether our present consumption of energy is justifiable (not simply sustainable), and how we can demand much less from the earth and still live rich and fulfilled lives.37


We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted. We think nothing of driving miles to leisure activities, and are ignorant of what happens when we flick on a light switch. We are quite happy, if we consider it at all, for our energy to be extracted overseas or generated on the other side of the country. In this respect, I admire a farmer who is willing to lease land for fracking and put up with the visual impact, noise and inconvenience.

Our relationship with energy is at odds with our other relationships: with God and creation; with our neighbour affected by the impacts of energy production or climate change, including future generations; and with our own souls. Living within constraints can be a well-spring of creativity – think of the beauty encapsulated by the strict form of sonnets and sonatas – and we damage ourselves when we live without compassion, mindfulness or simplicity.

I have already mentioned money as a Government motivator. But where have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart? If it is invested in fossil fuels, is it time we followed the example of the World Council of Churches and disinvested?38 We need to be wary too of placing a monetary value on the environment or community. The fracking protests at Balcombe divided the village and caused great bitterness. That could well happen elsewhere. But is a community worth £100,000 plus 1 per cent of revenues?


Thankfully, Balcombe has become an example of an alternative way. It has started a community energy project, raising money through personal savings and share issues to install solar panels and generate enough electricity for the village. The project is helping to bring healing to the community, offering a visible reminder of what lies behind that light switch, and demonstrating that ordinary people can have a choice about how they source their energy.


1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28513036

2 http://www.bgs.ac.uk/shalegas/

3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28513036

4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26735000

5 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/287378ee-0708-11e2-92ef-00144feabdc0.html

6 Resurgence, Jul-Aug 2014.

7 https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/environmental-report-for-further-onshore-oil-and-gas-licensing

8 http://earthquakes.bgs.ac.uk/research/earthquake_hazard_shale_gas.html

9 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277211/Water.pdf [link no longer active]

10 https://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/

11 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28130982

12 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/14/uk-defeats-european-bid-fracking-regulations

13 http://brightnow.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Bright-Now-report.pdf

14 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24823641

15 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/237330/MacKay_Stone_shale_study_report_09092013.pdf

16 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/28/fracking-office-single-unit-shale-gas-produced

17 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26735000

18 http://www.nationalgrid.com/NR/rdonlyres/9122AEBA-5E50-43CA-81E5-8FD98C2CA4EC/32182/renewablegasWPfinal2.pdf

19 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/223492/navigant_consulting_report.pdf

20 https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/digest-of-uk-energy-statistics-dukes

21 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27393805

22 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/265972/Developing_Onshore_Shale_Gas_and_Oil__Facts_about_Fracking_131213.pdf

23 http://www.r-e-a.net/news/report-on-employment-and-skills-in-the-uk-renewable-energy-sector-to-be-launched-with-greg-barker

24 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/265972/Developing_Onshore_Shale_Gas_and_Oil__Facts_about_Fracking_131213.pdf

25 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/29/browne-fracking-not-reduce-uk-gas-prices-shale-energy-bills

26 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-28792721

27 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jul/19/george-osborne-tax-break-fracking-shale-environment

28 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/fracking/10605859/Pro-fracking-planning-reforms-rushed-through-despite-strong-opposition-Lords-warn.html

29 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/13/fracking-shale-gas-incentives-councils

30 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27529175

31 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/fracking/0605859/Pro-fracking-planning-reforms-rushed-through-despite-strong-opposition-Lords-warn.html

32 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-27110655

33 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-attitudes-tracking-survey-wave-9

34 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-fracking-industry-bosses-at-heart-of-coalition-8707589.html

35 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/newsdesk/energy/news/whoare

36 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/22/environment-agency-chairman-fracking-links

37 http://www.chichester.anglican.org/news/2013/08/15/fracking-debate-should-be-more-challenging/

38 http://brightnow.org.uk/news/global-divestment-movement-builds-momentum/



So BP has been found “grossly negligent” in the lead-up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and fined billions of dollars. In response to the original event, and other oil-related events past and imagined, I wrote a series of haikus. Not saying they’re any good, but here they are.

The Sea Empress holed.
Crude oil slicking north and south
Tarred the spring feathers.

Heat-waves in Europe
Slaughtered old and young alike –
Bring on climate change!

Katrina Mark II:
Deepwater Horizon spills
Poisonous record.

North Sea in winter.
OPEC spikes the markets and
Ignites Armagedd-


Nuclear – a low-carbon, low-cost energy-secure future?

In the 3 May edition of the Church Times, Bishop Anthony Priddis wrote an article extolling thorium: “Thorium: it’s green, nuclear, safe” (pdf). I have just sent a Letter to the editor in response.

Sir, – I would like to question the assumptions underlying Anthony Priddis’ article on Thorium (Comment, 3 May). The Department of Energy and Climate Change outlines four scenarios for the energy mix in 2050. The ‘Higher renewables, more energy efficiency’ scenario shows that there does not need to be a nuclear future. And this is the cheapest option; the high-nuclear scenario is the most expensive.

DECC is aiming for a low-carbon, low-cost, energy-secure future.

If thorium is a low-carbon option, I would like to see the figures for the embodied energy and energy consumption over the whole lifecycle of the R&D, plant construction and decommissioning. I would also like to see the costs for the whole lifecycle (using unbiased discount rates), and the opportunity cost of not investing in cheaper alternatives.

As for UK energy security, Priddis’ article says that thorium is found in Australia, India, the United States, and Norway, and the technology is being developed in China, India, Norway and France. The UK company Centrica has abandoned nuclear, leaving those power stations currently planned to Electricité de France. EdF is in financial trouble, and trying to lock the government in to 40 years of guaranteed prices. Moreover, an electricity grid made up of few large-scale stations is vulnerable when one of those stations fails or requires maintenance.

Then the article gives an R&D lead-time of 10-15 years. Goodness knows how many years will then be needed for decision-making, planning, and negotiating contracts; then goodness knows how many more to build and commission the plant. Nuclear has a long history of delays.

Renewable energy is from the UK. The technologies are human-scale. They are available now, and because they are small-scale, they can be continually refined as they are installed. The UK is already involved in R&D and manufacture, and there is still an opportunity to invest in further capacity, combined with R&D in electricity storage and demand-side management aiming at creating resilient and more local grids.

But the most important component of future electricity supply is ‘negawatts’, reducing consumption through energy efficiency and modifying lifestyles. DECC’s ‘Higher nuclear’ scenario also assumes ‘less energy efficiency’. Maybe DECC is implying that nuclear is part and parcel of the myopic mindset locked into unsustainable high-consumption lifestyles. Certainly, Thorium smacks of being yet another technology fix aiming to shore up business as usual.

Clare Bryden


Should I do the ironing?

MonitorAbout a year ago, I borrowed an electricity monitor back from a friend, and have just got round to installing it again.

The monitor usefully shows how much electricity I’m using, without me having to dig out the key in order to read the outdoor meter. I also want to know how I best I can use my lovely solar electricity, but I have also lost my list of electricity consumption by gadget so need to work it all out again.

First up, I’m making some bread, so may as well check out the figure in the bread machine manual. It says it uses 505-550 W. I have very little else on, but the monitor reads anything between 1500 W and 2400 W. Maybe it’s the fridge-freezer cutting in and out. I wait until the bread is done and turn the fridge off. The monitor jumps from 750 W to over 1000 W to 2600 W!

And then I twig, the monitor doesn’t care whether the electricity is flowing one way or the other. It is simply measuring electricity. When the sun is out, I’m generating more than I’m using, so the monitor is telling me that I’m exporting – 2600 W, or 1900 W as I’m writing this. The monitor is still positive when a cloud comes over, but now I’m less sure whether I’m consuming or exporting.

So a bit of guesswork is needed to work this out, combining the instantaneous electricity monitoring with the 15-minute solar panel monitoring, and I still need to find out how much electricity my various gadgets use, but maybe the electricity monitor is even more useful than I thought. At the moment I know I have 1900 W to play with, which is probably enough to do the ironing… except that the sun has gone in, so maybe I’ll read a book instead.


Solar powered data geek

[Let’s draw a veil over a blogless January and February]

On the day that the government lost its Feed-In Tariff appeal in the Court of Appeal, the guys from Sungift Solar started to install PVs on my house. I still don’t know how much I’ll be paid for what I generate, as the government is now taking its appeal to the Supreme Court. But leaving that aside…

My installation is:

  • 11 panels totalling 2.7 kW, manufactured by Siliken, model SLK60M6L 245Wp monocrystalline
  • SolarEdge SE3000 inverter
  • 11 SolarEdge widgets that smooth the output from each panel and improve efficiency

A friend has exactly the same system installed, except for the widgets. I’m hoping to be able to calculate the efficiency gain by comparing generation totals. BUT the widgets also provide data on power output at 15 minute intervals and daily generation totals, so I can be a renewable energy geek and a data geek at the same time!

Here’s a pretty picture of daily totals. So far, the maximum power output has been 2.47 kW on 3 March, and the maximum daily generation 12.82 kWh on 29 February.

Daily totals

It’s interesting to note that the highest power output does not necessarily take place on the sunniest day. Compare the 15 minute data for 19 and 26 February. The 19th was a low pressure day – sunny and cloudy intervals, and very good visibility. The 26th was a high pressure day – sunny all day, but so hazy that I could barely make out the Haldon Hills across the estuary. So although total generation was higher on the 26th, the better visibility meant that power output peaked higher on the 19th.

15min intervals

All this information leads me to wonder whether it might be a useful proxy for some weather observations – most obviously sunshine hours, but also possibly cloud cover, and a measure of visibility or haze. A model of reduction in power output below expected, as a function of cloud cover or visibility, would need to account for: location of installation and time of year, i.e. position of sun throughout day; pitch and orientation of panels; shading; any lying snow; outages; degrading efficiency of panels over time. Might be possible. Whether the information is worth anything would also depend on the number of installations which include these sort of widgets, and whether the companies and the panel owners are willing to provide the data.


Community Energy Schemes

Community renewable energy schemes, which are registered for Feed-in-Tariffs, summed and mapped by postcode districts. Click on the dot for information on the installed capacity of each technology.
Red: 0-10 kW
Yellow: 10-20 kW
Green: 20+ kW
Data source: Ofgem.