Scottish Energy in the 21st Century

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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): It is interesting that in a debate entitled ''Scottish energy in the 21st century'' the SNP spokesman seems to want to dwell on the past.

Mr. Weir: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I want to dwell for a few minutes on how we got to this stage. The Trade and Industry Select Committee report was published last week. Referring to the proposed waste management agency it said:

    ''It remains to be seen—and will doubtless take some months to become apparent—whether relieving the industry of these liabilities will actually change public perception of the industry and encourage investment in it . . . It is essential that there be no further delay in government decision-making; the Government should make a clear statement on the future of nuclear energy as quickly as possible.''

Nuclear is key to the whole issue of how we deal with Scotland's future energy. If the Government go down the route of nuclear energy, follow the PIU report and give that subsidy, it will have an impact on coal. Investment is needed in new clean coal technology if Scotland's coal is to be used for energy in the future. It will also have an impact on the moneys needed for the renewable development. We believe that nuclear energy should have no future in Scotland, and that existing plants should be decommissioned at the end of their economic or technological lifetime. Liberal Democrat Members agree with us on that.

Scotland has the ability to develop its energy needs in a non-nuclear strategy. A good example of that is the combined cycle gas turbine station in Peterhead, which is the most efficient of its kind in Europe. The maximum theoretical efficiency of power stations is rated at 60 per cent. When the two new generators for

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Peterhead go ahead, the station will operate at 57 per cent. efficiency. We must accept that given our commitments to Kyoto we cannot go ahead on coal and gas alone. As the Trade and Industry Committee observed:

    ''Clearly, investment in maximising the exploitation of UK reserves will delay the time at which security of supply becomes an issue for this country.''

In other words, there is a window of opportunity to take the renewable option while we have the supplies of oil and gas to tide us through, rather than rely on nuclear stations. Nuclear stations will be decommissioned if we go to plan within the next 10 years or so. If we do not get the renewable sources of wave, wind and water up and running, generating electricity very quickly, there could be a shortfall. We must recognise that and not bury our heads in the sand.

Mr. Russell Brown: The hon. Member mentioned the window of opportunity. It has been there for the past two or three decades. Regrettably we have not exploited it as we should have done. When the crunch time comes, there may be a shortfall if we have not invested in renewables as he and others in this Room, including myself, would like us to do. What happens if we cannot achieve the security of energy supply that we are talking about? Would he agree that there is the potential to consider replacement rebuild of nuclear reactors?

Mr. Weir: No, I would not. I was making the point that we can get over that with our existing supplies of coal and gas if we maximise them properly. Nuclear power has no future, and there is a danger that if we do not maximise the potential for other energy use while renewables come on stream, we will be forced down the nuclear route again. That would be disastrous for the Scottish economy.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): The hon. Gentleman may find that some Labour Members agree with his views on nuclear power, although I do not know how many. The hon. Gentleman is looking to a control market. Will he say how he would deal with a control market in Scotland, which is a British market?

Mr. Weir: Our option is clear: we have been looking for independence, but that does not come into it. The energy market has never been a free market in the UK or in Scotland. It does not matter which route the Government choose, or what the Minister says about it being up to the free market energy generators to decide whether to produce renewable or nuclear energy. Both types of energy will have to be subsidised in some way, so the market will never be a free one.

We would choose the renewable option, as that is the obvious way to proceed. When we evaluate energy resources, we should consider whether it is technically possible, economically viable, and can produce sufficient energy. Wind power is fast becoming established, and annual growth in the renewable energy sector is estimated to be approximately 40 per cent. Unfortunately, Government action seems to suffer from poverty of ambition. The renewable energy

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target for 2010 for Scotland is 18 per cent., which is almost double that of England. Much of that is to do with the existing hydro schemes in Scotland. However, the European average is 22.1 per cent. In Austria, the target is a massive 78.1 per cent. In Sweden, it is 60 per cent., and even in Portugal, it is 45.6 per cent.

Scotland should be able to use its massive natural resources to increase substantially the amount of energy that comes from renewable resources. That must be done quickly. We do not have time to sit around talking intellectually about the best direction to take. When I put the timescale for wave and tidal power to the Minister for Industry and Energy, he made the right noises about getting it up and running as soon as possible. However, we need massive investment as soon as possible, otherwise wave and tidal power will go the same way as wind power. That substantial additional investment is essential to take the route into new technology.

Mention was made of Denmark, which created 15,000 jobs from wind power from a standing start. There was no background in aviation or other industries, from which wind technology sprang. Scotland, however, has a huge background in shipbuilding and offshore exploration, the very industry that will give the lead in wave and tidal power. Many of the technological problems of wave and tidal power have been overcome. As the Minister said, some existing schemes are working, such as the one on Islay. The particular problems with Scottish waters are also surmountable. There was an interesting debate in Westminster Hall about that in the last Session.

It is not clear whether the systems can produce enough energy and are economically viable. The Minister rightly said that we need to get the systems up and running. However, as has been said, we need to do that quickly.

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): In view of the hon. Gentleman's correct concern about the urgency of getting the systems up and running, can he explain why local SNP activists object to wind farm applications in Ayrshire?

Mr. Weir: Anyone can object to any sort of scheme. I ask the Minister how many objections he would find to a nuclear power station. The number would be rather more than wind power prompted. The point has already been made about the difference in what we believe and the reality, and that we must square the circle.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Weir: No, I have given way enough.

The UK nuclear industry already received substantial funding from the Government. In 1999, it received some £26 million for research and development, and there was the recent takeover of Magnox liabilities of £3.7 billion. Greenpeace has said that the UK electricity consumers have paid £2.6 billion via the non-fossil fuel levy. The Minister spoke

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earlier about the investment in renewables and quoted a figure of £260 million for all renewable sources. Given the figures for the nuclear industry, is that enough to push forward a renewable energy system that will give us sufficient energy to close the gap and replace nuclear power?

Again, I refer to the recent Science and Technology Committee report on tidal and wave power, and specifically recommendation 16, which stated:

    ''The current level of public spending on wave and tidal energy research is insufficient to give the technology the impetus it needs to develop fully.''

Therein lies the rub. Such energy is still only potential and theoretical, and until we invest money in the technology, it will not be realised. The only route through which sufficient investment will come is the Government. As has been mentioned, that is important because of not the potential not only for energy, but export of the systems.

I look forward to the PIU report and its comments on the future of energy resources. However, I have not been encouraged by leaks, which have suggested for example that the nuclear industry will be exempted from the climate change levy and that change will be made in planning regulations to allow a shorter period for obtaining planning consent. That is despite the fact that planning consent is a matter for the Scottish Parliament and not this place. Greenpeace have claimed to have obtained details that say around a dozen new nuclear plants could be built with the help of Government tax breaks and a more relaxed planning regime. We do not know whether they are true yet, and we look forward to receiving the report.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) mentioned the report commissioned for the Scottish Executive, which has shown that it is abundantly clear that Scotland has the resources to provide all our energy needs from renewable resources. In his intervention during the Minister's statement, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the problem of infrastructure. That is a serious problem that will need serious investment, and I do not think that he really got an answer to his question about where that investment would come from and the time scale in which it would be put in.

In a previous debate on wave and tidal power, it was pointed out that the national grid in Scotland is on the wrong side of the country for wave, wind and tidal power. Many of the potential sites for such generation are in the north and west while much of the grid is in east and central Scotland. Investment will be needed to expand that grid, and we should not shy away from that, because the original grid was built with public money and Governments have invested heavily in other energy projects. Dounreay is a perfect example, as is the great gas robbery to which the Minister took such exception. Mention has been made of planning application. Again, any development may have some objections to it, and that is something that will have to be overcome. I reiterate that that has nothing to what nuclear stations have, but it might lead to some delays.

It will come as no surprise to Members that the Scottish National party is resolutely opposed to nuclear power. As we have said before, existing

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stations should be decommissioned at the end of their technological lifespan and no new stations built. Many nuclear stations in Scotland are to be decommissioned within the near future—the next 20 years. Even allowing for the lifespan and the expansion of some stations, we still have insufficient energy resources to replace them. I have already spoken about the window of opportunity, but the targets for 2010 will not fill the gap. We must increase them. I shall not refer again to Government investment as I have mentioned it several times.

Huge potential exists for investment in renewable technology by existing industries, especially in Scotland. The shipbuilding industry could construct the machines and the oil industry could diversify into wave and tidal power, particularly in the north and east of Scotland.

Government Members have largely rejected public investment, but the enormous potential export market for wave and tidal energy devices easily justifies the public investment necessary to ensure success and would aid the security of supply about which the Government are so concerned. Frankly, it is too important to be left to the vagaries of the market.

To conclude, our debate is titled ''Scotland's energy in the 21st century'', but only independence will ensure it.

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Prepared 13 February 2002