Retour vers le futur avec le gaz de schiste

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Vous êtes-vous déjà demandé à quoi pourrait ressembler le débat sur le gaz de schiste avec le recul ? Stefan Schleicher de l'Institut autrichien de recherche économique (WIFO) à Vienne s’est posé la question. Il prévoit que l’intégration du gaz dans un système énergétique européen neutre en carbone changerait réellement la donne. 


Stefan Schleicher est professeur à l'Institut autrichien de recherche économique (WIFO) à Vienne.

Imagining how the next generation might look back to the present energy system in 2050, these could be the key findings: We used to talk about energy in terms of volumes instead of the much more welfare-relevant generated services and we vastly underestimated the potential for providing these services with radically higher productive technologies.

We used to search in vain for cheap energy until we realized that accepting scarcity and the related higher energy prices served as a trigger for highly improved energy productivity. In retrospect these might be some reflections on the transformation of the European energy system with a strong bearing for the role of shale gas.

By 2050 the thermal energy services in buildings, which used to consume about one-third of energy flows, were provided with building designs that increase energy productivity by a factor of five. A similar productivity leap occurred in the mechanical energy services needed for mobility by switching to new vehicle designs, a shift in the infrastructure for mobility to low energy modes, but also changes in the spatial organisation of production and consumption. This evolution from the old transport sector to the new mobility system affected another third of energy flows.

Similar radical technical changes happened in the production of material products, which required the remaining third of energy flows. The highest impact had new production technologies with additive manufacturing or 3D printing and the new materials based on advanced polymers.

Europe has highly benefited from a first mover advantage by embarking on this transformation of its energy system. The visible results are abundant energy services with only half of the energy flows in the old system and a reduction of fossil energy to one fifth. This transformation proceeded not without controversies. The major ones were related to the use of renewables and shale gas.

In a surprising policy decision, Germany started under the heading Energiewende – a shut-down of nuclear power plants and a bold expansion of renewables, in particular wind and photovoltaics. It took some time until the lesson was learned that integrating these vast amounts of electricity from renewables into the electricity system required investments in grid infrastructure that hit limits both in terms of costs and public acceptance.

The discussions about the use of shale gas in Europe stirred up even more controversies. The impact of aggressive production of this unconventional gas in the United States contributed to domestic US prices that were temporarily only one third or even less than European gas prices and raised prospects that the US might become energy self-sufficient if also unconventional oil reserves were tapped.

A loud call that Europe should benefit from similar strategies as to its own shale gas reserves soon faded away. In the beginning it was the potential environmental harm of hydraulic fracturing that is needed for releasing the gas from rock beds which led the majority of European governments to suspend drilling for shale gas. Next, even in countries as Poland, which were open to this technology, exploration activities and deposits estimates were scaled down. Finally it turned out that shale gas in Europe due to the geological make-up would be much more costly compared to the US.

Also the hope for cheap gas from the US to Europe via liquefied natural gas and sea transport turned out to be elusive. Roughly half of the price gap between Europe and the US was closed by the costs of processing and transport. Other significant developments in the US were peaking supplies of shale gas linked to increasing production costs. With an even higher price gap of gas towards the US in Asia and a restricted export policy of the US no significant amount of cheap US gas remained available for Europe.

A game-changer for gas in Europe came from fundamentally different insights. It was the discovery that demand for gas would be substantially lower by a transformation to a high-productivity and low-carbon energy system. Gas in such an energy framework is needed only as an exception for providing low-energy heat in buildings because of the new building designs. For electricity generation gas has taken the role of providing complementary supply when the intermitting renewables wind and photovoltaics are not sufficiently available but gas is no longer needed for base-load electricity.

This required, however, a shift in the business model of the traditional utilities. A landmark was the decision by NRG Energy, the biggest US power provider, to invest directly with homes and businesses both photovoltaics and gas-based micro-cogeneration units, thus making the customers independent of the electricity grid. David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, explained at the 2013 MIT Energy Conference, why consumers are realising that they don’t need the power industry at all.

Looking on gas in Europe back from such a different future of a disruptively transformed energy system, we realise plenty of benefits. First, the radical increased energy productivity enables Europe to compensate higher gas prices towards the US while maintaining lower prices towards Asian countries. Secondly, the drop in demand for gas triggered a pressure for lower prices in European gas markets. Thirdly, the enabling high-productivity energy technologies give Europe competitive advantages in the global technology competition. Last but not least, shale gas reserves remain valuable assets for a time and for needs that are not yet visible. Thus the current controversies about the potential role of shale gas in Europe might serve as a reminder that it is not the vague hope for cheap energy but the targeted technologies for higher energy productivity which will foster the industrial base of Europe.

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