Previous SectionIndexHome Page

20 Nov 2002 : Column 755—continued


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118 (6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Question agreed to.


Health Products

10.38 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I rise to present a petition, signed by several hundred of my constituents from the town of Dunstable and the surrounding area in South-West Bedfordshire, concerning choice in health products.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 756

Renewable Energy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10.40 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I want to put to the House tonight a straightforward and relatively simple argument about the way we live now and the future of our energy supplies.

The way we live now is straightforward to describe. Some 90 per cent. of us live in urban areas—that is, in built-up areas of more than 10,000 people. We are one of the most urbanised countries in the western world. We got into that position as a result of the transportability of energy supplies, which allowed the urban areas to which we were moving to be powered.

That urban growth has been supported all along by more sophisticated methods of energy supply. At most stages in the advance of that sophistication, the means to transport energy from the large centres of energy production to the large centres of consumption—domestic or industrial—were developed by non-market means. The national grid, the national gas pipelines, the road system and much of the modern railway system were all integral to the ability to deliver that energy over substantial distances. All were developed by non-market means, usually through some form of direct or indirect state assistance.

As a result, energy in huge quantities flows through these delivery systems, making it possible to service our grossly over-centralised urban way of life. That is also why this energy is cheap: the development costs of delivery have been written off or discounted, and the sheer volume of supply permits economy of scale.

So the next question is, what about the future of our energy supplies? That looks decidedly worrying. In short, we cannot go on with this system. It is not sustainable, for three reasons.

First, it is estimated that by 2050 or so the world is likely to run out of mineral energy supplies. We might last a bit longer if we countenanced a nuclear-powered future, but we must remember that that, too, would be dependent on mineral supplies, and would also leave behind an environmental residue that would be impossible to sustain.

Secondly, even if we could use all the mineral energy supplies known to us, or even find some more, the act of burning them could not be sustained by the planet in terms of the CO2 emissions that that burning would generate.

Thirdly, well before 2050, the diminishing availability of what is left of mineral energy supplies will ensure one of two things—and probably will ensure both. Either the price will rise dramatically, or there will be conflict over security of supply. The United Kingdom is poorly placed to secure its own supplies. Indeed, the recent performance and innovation unit report on energy strategy suggests that, by the middle of that run-in period—exactly when conflicts on security are likely to become intense—we will be dependent on gas for 70 per cent. of our energy. It also suggests that 90 per cent. of that gas will have to be imported, probably from parts of the world that even now are not exactly stable.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 757

Before 2050, therefore, we will have to have in place, an energy economy that delivers to our urban areas supplies of energy comparable with those of today, but predominantly from non-mineral sources. The opportunity is there, in principle, and renewables, of course, are secure. They can be obtained from all around us, and not by means of the transport of liquid fuel over vast distances. However, it is literally a race against time for our urban areas, and at present we are not winning it.

As the saying goes, what is to be done? Much is being done, I know, by the Government. We have a climate change levy, we have a renewables obligation, and we have a target for the percentage of renewables as the source of electricity by 2010. At present the target is set at 10 per cent., but the PIU report suggests a target of 20 per cent. by 2020.

That is good progress. Many of the mechanisms are in place, but we are not there yet. We will have difficulty in obtaining the delivery of 10 per cent. of energy from renewables by 2010, let alone the more ambitious target of 20 per cent. by 2020 if the PIU report is accepted. Moreover, we have to set that against the argument that I have advanced about the availability and security of mass energy supplies, and against the recommendations of the royal commission on environmental pollution. The commission stated that, in order to have a serious chance of stabilizing our atmosphere against global warming in the long term, we must reduce our CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050.

This suggests for both reasons that the 20 per cent. target by 2020 is probably modest and that we should perhaps be looking at 35 per cent. by 2030, 50 per cent. by 2040 and 70 per cent. or more by 2050. That looks logical so far, but two powerful objections have been raised against it.

First, it is suggested that we simply cannot generate enough energy from renewable sources to substitute the quantities that we are consuming from mineral sources. A renewables energy economy, it is claimed, would return us to the age of the handcart. That is simply not true. The sun provides 15,000 times the energy use of the planet's human population every year, even if we discount the effect of that energy tied up in plant growth or the effect of tides and wind. The question is how to get hold of this energy, how to deliver it, and at what cost.

Secondly, it is suggested that even if the energy were available, the logistics of installing the capacity to generate it would be unacceptable in terms of how our landscape would look and what we would have to put up with. For example, figures have been quoted showing that to replace a medium-sized nuclear power station it would be necessary to cover an area the size of East Sussex with the vegetation necessary to fuel the equivalent biomass power stations. Alternatively, we would have to cover the landscape with wind farms or much of our coastline with wave and tidal power plants. If the choice were between no power and power derived by these means, I guess that some people might be persuaded that covering Sussex with elephant grass or coppiced willow would not be a bad thing, but there is some substance in the complaint. We know, for example, that the siting of onshore wind farms is running into serious planning problems.

The second objection highlights an aspect of our future energy policy that has been neglected. The planning of the infrastructure of future energy supply

20 Nov 2002 : Column 758

will be as important as what it consists of or how much it costs. Indeed, if the prognoses about the future of mineral energy supplies are right, planning probably will be the main issue, precisely because renewable energy is all around us. We will be looking at a different kind of energy economy—not one that unloads large quantities of liquid stored energy in one place or pipes it ashore in one place, but an economy of thousands of energy sources jointly contributing to the provision of energy in situ or exporting from a localised source to the national grid.

What are we doing to plan the emergence of such an economy? We are, it is true, bending the market with the exemption of renewables from the climate change levy. That will, we hope, tilt the market towards them, as will the renewables obligation. Within that, we appear to be standing by the market to mature the renewable technologies that will—eventually, we hope—provide most of our energy supplies. All this is supposed to happen in less than 50 years, when we are still relying for most of our current energy supplies on the generation—even in nuclear energy—of energy that derives from steam technology, a method that is 200 years old.

We say that we will not pick winners among renewables, and, in effect, that within the overall tilt towards renewables that the levy and the obligation provides, we will rely on the market to bring particular renewables to market. It will make them work when they are market-ready and the volume of supply drives costs down, but the market will not, I fear, bring the range of renewables necessary to market if it is left to its own devices, any more than it has brought previous energy technologies to market.

Here is what Anthony Giddens, no less, has to say about markets. He says it in a book entitled, coincidentally, XThe Third Way and its Critics", but that should not be held against the quote. He says:

What we are doing by not picking winners is exactly that—we are not dealing with the externalities of the market by other means. For we are envisaging a renewables expansion that essentially picks where renewables are to be generated from—that is, from rural areas, not the urban areas in which 90 per cent. of us live.

We will, we hope, generate power from wind farms, from tidal power and from biomass—all very important technologies and potential winners, but only in combination with other forms of renewables that we can obtain from urban sources, which on present logic we are not going to do. That is strange as we already deal with, and are considering dealing more rigorously with, another market-led commodity that often pops up in the wrong parts of the country and at the wrong price: housing.

We are in danger of bypassing the huge energy resource represented by urban generation, of which there could be two kinds—or, more precisely, two and half kinds. The first two are fully renewable and the half is almost renewable.

The first two derive from the sun, which shines on every roof in every town. Most houses could supply up to half their internal energy requirements from installed

20 Nov 2002 : Column 759

photovoltaics and/or from evacuated-tube solar water heating. The half is the potential of combined heat and power, which, increasingly, can be installed locally or even, with sterling engine technology, house by house. Of course, I realise that CHP is not strictly a renewable source—although it may be, depending on the fuel that is used—but it represents, as the PIU report notes, a low-cost option for carbon abatement.

For example, small CHP plants on landlocked sites behind a close of houses have the proven ability to supply all those houses with heat and power and to export some energy to the profit of the close. The capacity is immense.

Neither solar technology nor CHP would consume Sussex. They would not keep the population awake at night, nor would they block our estuaries or clutter our coastlines; yet because wind and biomass, for example, are currently deemed cheaper to bring to market, or because the market in energy pricing is stifling the development of CHP, I suspect that we shall produce a lopsided and possibly publicly unacceptable future for renewable development.

We can and should be able to consider non-market mechanisms, which are not hugely expensive, to right the balance of renewable development between rural and urban supply. There are several such mechanisms. I shall describe two of them.

We might introduce building regulations for new housing that require each new house to generate a stated percentage of its likely energy consumption from its own construction. That would mean that builders had the option, in essence, to embed photovoltaics or to power an estate development with CHP. The Government have recently, with little fanfare, amended the building regulations to require environmentally friendly boiler design and low emissivity glass in double glazing. Between them, those changes will save almost as much CO2 as the whole of the 10-year transport plan. In principle, it is not difficult to do.

We might also enable local authorities or community groups to become legal energy generators of CHP and allow local authorities to set up, oversee and trade in energy through local CHP plants. In Southampton, there is currently a proposal, supported by a single regeneration budget grant, for 3,000 homes in the west of the city to be heated by a CHP plant, but the city requires a commercial company to make the project work. A small legislative change and some priming assistance would make a huge difference and offer a window for the development of local and micro CHP.

I know that the Government are committed to winning the battle of climate change in the UK. I know, too, that they are committed to producing an energy economy that is a key instrument in winning that battle. That is why they have my full support for that, among other aims. However, I do not want to have to tell my grandchildren in 30 years that we could have done something about climate change but we did not because the means of doing so were contrary to market conditions. I should acknowledge that I stole that line from the distinguished writer on energy matters, Dr. Hermann Scheer.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 760

Dr. Scheer is right, however. If we rely on the market, we shall not gain from the cities and towns in which we live the immense benefit of providing our heat and power from the resources around us. That could be a disaster for all of us, whether we are urban or rural dwellers. With some relatively straightforward instruments, we can put it right.

Next Section

IndexHome Page