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22 Jul 1998 : Column 1078

Clean-coal Technology

12.30 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck): I thank the House for allowing me to secure the debate. I shall develop an argument for Government support for clean-coal technology in the context of an integrated regional energy programme, and will use practical examples of best practice to show that we can develop complementary energy systems--some based on renewables and all with the ability to be used nationally and traded internationally. That would allow Britain to develop a diverse, sustainable and secure source of energy.

My constituency is in the north-east of England, which has the potential to develop sources of renewable energy. A seven-turbine wind farm was built at the edge of my constituency six years ago, at the entrance to Blyth harbour. It generates enough electricity to power 1,500 homes. Plans are in place for two large wind turbines to be placed offshore and, if successful, they could be the blueprint for many more similar installations around Britain's coastline. There are more wind turbine companies in the north-east than in any other part of Britain, and a wind turbine can be manufactured small enough and economically enough to allow hill farmers and dairy farmers to produce electricity economically.

Northumbria university is a world leader in photovoltaics, which is the conversion of sunlight into electricity. The technology is capable not only of helping to reduce greenhouse gases, but could help business development and, therefore, wealth creation. The Ove Arup Newcastle office is the worldwide centre for all its photovoltaic work, and Sundwell Solar supplies a third of the United Kingdom's solar thermal units.

The region is home to major consultancies such as Meiz and Mclellan, and we have architects and system designers, all of whom are poised to pool their related expertise for the design, supply and installation of photovoltaic systems for the global market. There are more than 200 rivers and streams in the area, yet we have only one hydro-electric scheme, at Kielder. We have room for many more.

The region is energy-rich, and our greatest energy asset is coal. The great northern coalfield stretches from north Yorkshire almost to the Scottish border, and coal has been mined there for more than 600 years. Our only remaining deep coal mine is Ellington colliery, which employs 500 people, and works the rich seams seven miles out under the North sea.

We have two coal-fired power stations in the constituency. One is owned by Alcan and supplies the aluminium smelter. My hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will be aware that the power station and the smelter have just undergone a £100 million refurbishment, because he visited the plant recently. His encouragement and support played a major role in securing that investment, and I am grateful to him. Part of that investment went into providing new turbines, which will increase the efficiency of the station by 5 per cent. and reduce emissions by 14 per cent. The added bonus was that the turbines were made at Siemens Power Generation on Tyneside--a plant with a worldwide reputation for engineering excellence.

The Alcan power station is only 25 years old. It complies with all its emission requirements, and could be a site for the fitting of clean-coal units. The other

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coal-fired station--Blyth A and B--is an entirely different story. It is owned by National Power and is one of the oldest coal-fired stations in Britain. It does not appear to be used a great deal and, although no announcement has been made by National Power, informed opinion is that it has about two years to run. It would be a perfect site for a new energy centre, combining a clean-coal power station, a recycling plant and the generation of electricity with a fuel mix of coal and pellets from waste manufactured on-site.

Blyth power station is a regional asset. It stands in one of the best transport positions in Britain and has a deep-water berth in the port of Blyth with direct access to the North sea. The rail link into the station is close to the east coast main line and there is a dual carriageway linking through the A19 to the Tyneside conurbation. Coal stocking and ash disposal are on site, so planning permission would be much easier to obtain without a lengthy and expensive public inquiry. The switchgear and grid infrastructure are already in place.

There are two attractions of substituting some fuel by introducing waste to the clean-coal technology project: there would be a reduction in fuel costs, and there could be a beneficial impact on the environment. Many of our large cities are experiencing major problems disposing of household waste. Landfill sites are at a premium, which enables owners to make ever increasing charges in line with what the market will bear and to compensate themselves for the long-term liability that the sites carry. The possibility of an increase in landfill tax will put pressure on waste producers to find other methods of disposal.

About 300,000 tonnes of waste of all types is landfilled in Northumberland alone, but there is evidence that landfilling is no longer the best option. The recent European meeting on the clean-coal technology programme concluded:

They emit carbon dioxide, methane dioxins and other harmful products to the atmosphere and to groundwater. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and recent studies have shown that composting of waste may form high levels of dioxins that may be avoided or destroyed in a combustion process.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we simply burn all our household waste; recycling plant would enable much of it to be recycled. As a nation, we do not recover valuable products such as metal, plastics and paper; generally speaking, they are simply buried.

A commercial recycling plant would encourage local authorities to inform householders of the benefits of sorting and separating household rubbish at source, in the home. The proposed energy centre at Blyth is adjacent to a large industrial site, which makes it ideal for the addition of an element of combined heat and power. That would dramatically increase the thermal efficiency of the plant through the subsequent reduction in emissions.

Refitting an existing power station with clean-coal technology is not only cost-effective; it helps in the longer term to achieve our commitment substantially to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions. I was pleased that that commitment was spelled out in the recent White Paper, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to examine the time scale for compliance.

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We need to protect the environment, but we also need to protect and enhance our quality of life and employment opportunities. There is little point in the young mother taking her children to school commenting on the freshness of the cold morning air if her husband is unemployed and they are struggling to feed and clothe their children. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to try to achieve a balance between our physical and our social environment--and achieving such a balance will be much easier if clean-coal technology is adopted.

I am confident that the new energy centre will receive funds through the European joule and thermie programmes, which allow funding of demonstration projects as well as research and development. The new energy centre company could be a partnership, bringing together local authorities, equipment manufacturers, regional electricity companies and generators such as National Power. That partnership might produce sufficient capital to ensure the survival of the project; but, given that it may not, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider providing Government funds to enhance the various European programmes and to make clean-coal burning not just a theory but a reality?

I have used Blyth power station as an example, but many other coal-fired stations could benefit from clean-coal technology. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use his good offices to urge generators to invest in such technology now, where that is appropriate, to ensure security of electricity supply and to guarantee the long-term survival of what is left of Britain's mining industry.

Mr. John Cummings (Easington): Would it not be rather ironic if the investment that we are asking from our British Government were spent on the burning of clean coal in Germany? A ridiculous arrangement currently exists because of the high subsidies given to the German mining industry. Will not the Government investment for which we are asking be at risk if the question of subsidies is not resolved once and for all?

Mr. Murphy: I agree wholeheartedly.

Coal still has a major role to play as an industry producing fuel for the future, and it could play a large part in building a new clean-energy centre in my constituency. As well as being rich in energy, the north-east is rich in ideas, innovation and engineering. Not only could we use the new technologies locally; we could design and manufacture equipment for global markets.

Power stations throughout the world use equipment designed and manufactured on Tyneside. The first house to be lit by electricity is in Northumberland--Cragside, near Rothbury. We have exported our ideas and products to every corner of the land. Recently, I had the good fortune to visit the Cabinet war rooms. In the Cabinet room itself, deep below Whitehall, I saw two massive girders running the length of the room and supporting the whole structure. Those girders have carried that colossal weight for half a century. I was pleased, but not surprised, to see stamped on them the words "Made in Gateshead". They are as good today as they were 50 years ago.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his efforts to give coal a fairer deal, and for throwing the industry lifeline. I remind the House that coal from

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Northumberland fuelled the industrial revolution and has powered this century. I believe that, as a nation, we have a responsibility to ensure that there is a place for it in the millennium, and clean-coal technology will guarantee that place.

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