A wind farm requires 700 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a fracking site, according to analysis by the energy department’s recently-departed chief scientific advisor.
Prof David MacKay, who stood down from the Government role at the end of July, published analysis putting shale gas extraction “in perspective”, showing it was far less intrusive on the landscape than wind or solar energy.
His intervention was welcomed by fracking groups, who are battling to win public support amid claims from green groups and other critics that shale gas extraction will require the “industrialisation” of the countryside.
Hundreds of anti-fracking protesters on Thursday occupied a field near Blackpool neighbouring a proposed fracking site for energy firm Cuadrilla.
Prof MacKay said that a shale gas site uses less land and “creates the least visual intrusion”, compared with a wind farm or solar farm capable of producing the equivalent amount of energy over 25 years.
He rated each technology’s “footprint” against six criteria covering aspects of land use, height, visual impact and truck movements to and from the site.
The shale gas site or “pad” was the “winning” technology on three measures, solar farms won on two, while wind farms did not win any. None was deemed to have “won” on truck movements as all types generated “lots” of traffic.
Prof MacKay, who is Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, said that a shale gas pad of 10 wells would require just 2 hectares of land and would be visible – due to an 85-foot-high drilling rig – from 77 hectares of surrounding area. However, the drilling rig would be in place for “only the first few years of operations”.
By contrast, a wind farm capable of producing the same energy would span an area of 1,450 hectares, requiring 87 turbines each 328-foot tall.
Prof MacKay noted that the actual turbines, access roads and other installations for the wind farm would have a smaller footprint, of 36 hectares, as “the wind farm has lots of empty land between the turbines, which can be used for other purposes”.
But the large area covered by the farm as a whole would mean it would be visible from a surrounding area of between 5,200 and 17,000 hectares.
A solar farm generating equivalent energy would span a 924 hectare area, directly building on 208 hectares of it.
An estimated 7,800 lorry movements would be required for the wind farm and between 3,800 and 7,600 for the solar farm.
The fracking site could require the fewest lorry movements, at 2,900, if water is piped to and from the site. However, it could require significantly more than the other technologies – 20,000 trips – if water was transported by truck.
Prof MacKay said the analysis showed that “perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no silver bullet – no energy source with all-round small environmental impact”. He said that all sources “have their costs and risks” and said the public should “look at all the options”.
A spokesman for Cuadrilla said: “This comparison by David MacKay clearly demonstrates that, contrary to what some people may assume, exploration for and production of shale gas would actually have less far less impact on the countryside than wind or solar energy.
“To supply an equivalent amount of energy a shale gas site would occupy just a small fraction of the land required for either wind or solar sites, would have less visual intrusion and significantly less transport impact, given that in the UK we do not anticipate having to truck water to our proposed sites.”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of the UK Onshore Operators Group, which represents fracking firms, said: “David MacKay’s review is a useful addition to the debate. We are going to need all these energy sources to be part of a balanced energy mix.
“We mustn’t ignore the fact that over 80 per cent of homes and businesses are heated by gas. As an industry we are committed to informing and consulting fully with the communities in which we operate.”
Dr Jimmy Aldridge, energy analyst for Greenpeace UK, said: “The visual impact of fracking isn’t really the main issue – everyone knows that wind turbines are taller than drilling rigs, so you can see them from further away, but government figures show three times as many people support wind power than shale gas, and that difference just gets more pronounced when it’s in their local area.
“That’s partly because of the risk of localised air and water pollution, partly noise and inconvenience, but most importantly, because shale gas is a high-carbon energy source, which is exactly what we need a lot less of.”
The Department of Energy and Climate Change caused controversy last autumn when it published and then deleted from its website a graphic showing that onshore wind farms covering 250,000 acres would be required to generate as much power as the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, which would cover 430 acres.
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