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This time last week, I visited the home in my constituency of Mr. Paul Norris of High Brooms, who
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has installed a series of solar panels of his house. He has already had remarkable success. In recent weeks, he has managed to produce more solar energy than he is consuming. In addition to the savings that he is making, which he estimates will be in the order of £300 a year, he is saving about 1,000 kg of CO2 emissions. That stands as an example of how rapidly the technology is moving. It is already at the point of being economically viable. When we have beautiful days such as we had this morning in Tunbridge Wells before I left, Mr. Norris finds great satisfaction in the knowledge that the sunshine is contributing to energy that goes beyond his own requirements and is powering the houses of his neighbours.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the contribution that the sun can make to helping us to deal with climate change. The example that he mentions shows the contribution that can also be made by technological developments. Does he agree that economic growth need not be the enemy of dealing successfully with climate change, and that when we welcome growth, we need to ensure that it comes with an environmental component? In particular, when it comes to dealing with the whole question of how we protect our garden space, is not his own Bill an admirable recognition that housing growth must go hand in hand with respect for the environment, particularly the gardens that play so much of a part in cooling the atmosphere in urban areas and fighting climate change?

Greg Clark: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the shadow housing Minister, and delighted to have his support. He is right that technology, far from being the enemy of progress on climate change, offers the potential to help. As anyone who cares to visitMr. Norris’s house in High Brooms will see, it is a living example of how technology can offer us hope and allows us to step back from the cliff edge that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) mentioned.

Andrew Selous: Is my hon. Friend aware of roughly how much Mr. Norris’s solar panel installation cost, so that we can work out roughly over how many years there will be a payback for someone thinking of doing similar?

Greg Clark: My information is that it cost in the order of £15,000. However, one of the features of new technology is that once it goes into mass production, prices fall very rapidly. If it is that price today, I would expect that next year it will be much less, and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, technology, particularly innovation in technology, can make great strides very quickly.

Anne Milton: Does my hon. Friend agree that cost is absolutely crucial in getting widespread take-up of these technologies? Some years ago, I lived in a house with solar panels that provided hot water. They were fantastic, but when they broke and we looked into replacing them, the cost put us off. If we really want to
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get everybody on board in installing new technologies that will save energy, we have to ensure that the market is right.

Greg Clark: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I completely agree that we should not be put off by the cost. If we had been put off by the cost of early computers and concluded that they would never make a contribution to business or to the consumer, we would never have engaged in the research and development that has resulted in their being so indispensable today. I am absolutely certain that the costs will fall. We should take a dynamic view of the state of technology. It is evolving very rapidly. The example that I cited uses solar power to generate electricity rather than to heat water, which is much more flexible, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, and allows it to be transferred, in effect, from the house in which it was generated to the national grid and to other houses in the vicinity.

It is particularly admirable that the constituent to whom I referred is the deputy head of a very good junior school, St. Paul’s in Rusthall in my constituency. I know from my postbag, and I am sure that other hon. Members find, that young people are among the most interested in the technology of new sources of energy and the concerns about climate change that we all address in our correspondence with them, and it is particularly good to have a role model.

I now turn to some specific aspects of the Bill, which I welcome. It was watered down in Committee to a regrettable extent. Nevertheless, it represents progress. It takes a step forward in energy policy by recognising the contribution of microgeneration.

Microgeneration makes a contribution in several ways, which I commend to the House and which the Bill reinforces. First, it contributes to the heating of space and water, as we have seen in the case of the gentleman in my constituency whom I mentioned. That contribution is tangible, immediate and it is not years away from development. Given that the heating of space and water accounts for a considerable proportion of national annual energy consumption—higher, indeed, than the proportion accounted for by electricity consumption—that is important. Secondly, the model of microgeneration has the potential to overturnthe centralised approach to electricity generation,which, as we know, involves enormous costs in therunning of transmission and distribution systems. Microgeneration is taking us into a new paradigm, and it is good that the Bill recognises the progress that we are making here.

Thirdly, combined heat and power, although it has not had the full support that we hoped it would have, is recognised in the Bill. The great advantage of microCHP is that it is ready to go, it is non-intermittent, which is important, and it requires no planning permission or special infrastructure to be established. Solar panels are, of course, all very well and wind turbines can make a contribution, but they are intermittent. If we are to make a step change in renewable energy, we need to be able to generate a base load of dependable energy generation, on top of which we can add the intermittent sources. The great advantage of CHP and microCHP is that, because they are non-intermittent, they can provide the foundation
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on which some of the solar and other renewable energy sources can build. Finally, it is important to recognise that microgeneration may have a vital role to play in the eventual emergence of a hydrogen economy. We know that there are problems with the electrolytic production of hydrogen and its distribution. That may mean that the best model for hydrogen power is local and decentralised. The microgeneration initiatives that the Bill supports open a new paradigm that may be instructive.

We all know that energy policy is subject to constant change, not least because of the rapidly developing technology. It is important that we keep pace with that. I hope that this will not be the last Bill that comes before the House and brings us up to date. I commend the Bill for taking the first steps in that direction. It signals perhaps the end, notwithstanding the current energy review, of what we may call the Jurassic age of energy policy, when massive decisions about massive generating plants and distribution mechanisms were taken by a small number of people, including the Minister for Energy and his predecessors. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I hope that it will not be possible for our energy policy to be determined by a single individual, but that it will be determined, in effect, by the individual decisions of millions of consumers of energy across the country.

11.53 am

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing the Bill and express my condolences to him and to his family on their recent sad loss? I am pleased that, despite him not being with us, the Bill will, I hope, be able to progress.

The issue at hand is, of course, important and fundamental for the wellbeing of mankind. We have had a considerable amount of rhetoric on the subject but it is fair to say that action has been limited. I hope that, with this Bill, that will change and that action will progress. I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), who is not at present in his place, when he agreed with the comments of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the “Today” programme earlier today. The right hon. Gentleman said that he hoped to see greater co-operation between Departments, particularly with the new Secretary of State for Transport and the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. That, of course, is in stark contrast with previous experience, when DEFRA has always taken second place in a debate with another Department.

I am keen to emphasise that I am not in the business of point scoring, particularly in this very important debate, but I think it important to recognise that there has been considerable opposition to the Government’s approach to this issue, if only in recent weeks. The closure of the four centres of ecology and hydrology, which were engaged in research on the environment and climate change, is a case in point. They were closed, so it was said, in order to save money. Some£45 million was supposedly saved, a figure with which I disagree. But even if one accepts that there are savings to be made, we have to recognise that in the scheme of things—

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Michael Gove: I admire my hon. Friend for making this very important point about centres of academic and scientific excellence. Did not the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who used to be the Minister with responsibility for biodiversity, himself write to the Prime Minister pointing out that the closure of one such centre in Dorset would be a strategic error? Notwithstanding the fact that the hon. Gentleman has been promoted, is it not ominous that he has been promoted out of DEFRA and away from his biodiversity commitments? So one guardian of biodiversity and the fight against climate change—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to be tempted too far away from the content of the Bill.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very valid point. Indeed, one such centre of excellence that was engaged in climate change research— Monks Wood, which I have visited—is in my own constituency. It is worth recognising the enormous opposition that these closures have generated. I hope that the Government will take that point on board, because those voices spoke out not only for preserving jobs and other such issues, but for the need to deal with climate change.

The Government must set an example and lead from the front. It is all very well accepting the minimum standards for building regulations and the like, but it is important that, where the opportunity allows, the Government go one step beyond. A perfect example is the recent procurement of the new Home Office building, in respect of which the minimum standards of environmental protection have doubtless been enforced. I am minded to say that the Government should have taken the lead and gone further. The general public criticise the Government and politicians for simply talking about making changes, and such criticism is merited. When the Government have the opportunity to make such changes, they confine themselves to only the minimum statutory ones.

Local authorities also have a major role to play; indeed, several Members have referred to the role played by their local authorities. I congratulate my own—Peterborough city council and Huntingdonshire district council—on their sterling work in ensuring that there are environmentally friendly projects throughout the constituency. Local authorities can also play an important role in encouraging developers and builders to go beyond the statutory minimum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said earlier, the provisions in clause 11 are not mandatory. It is important to recognise that writing something down is one thing: ensuring that developers and others abide by such legislation is another.

Schools have a vital role to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) referred earlier to schoolchildren being told to switch off lights. I was recently heartened, on visiting one of my local schools, to be told that the children go home and tell their parents about recycling and other such beneficial measures. We must not underestimate the influence that schoolchildren can have on the older generation. If this generation are taught in school about looking after the climate, we will find that in due course half of the
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battle has been won. But that is not to say that we should leave it for the children of today to do the work for us in the future, because we have an important duty to act to preserve the climate ourselves.

Aviation pollution has been mentioned, and it is an important issue that must be addressed. Motor cars can be modified to run on hydrogen or electricity, but it is not so easy to modify aeroplanes to use those fuels. We will have to wait very many years for that to be possible. I recognise that aviation companies are making sterling efforts to reduce pollution, but the industry is still a heavy polluter and, where possible, the Government must work with the companies, not against them, to ensure that we reach a satisfactory solution.

We must also learn from the experience of other countries, and of companies that operate in them. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, of which I am a member, recently visited San Francisco. We are all aware that leadership on environmental projects is lacking at the top in the US, but in San Francisco we saw that many worthwhile initiatives are being undertaken locally, and we can learn from them. One example is the way in which utility companies are proactive and work with the San Francisco authorities to try to persuade local businesses and domestic householders to adopt energy-efficient technologies. If an individual householder is paying $200 a quarter for electricity, the utility company will go into the house and change the lighting and heating system, at its own cost, so that it becomes more energy-efficient. If the subsequent bill falls to $150 a quarter, the householder continues to pay $200 until the utility company’s costs have been covered. Thereafter, the householder receives the benefit of the savings, having paid nothing at the outset. We should consider that or similar measures in this country.

The Committee has also considered the present concentration on onshore wind projects. I am mindful that the hon. Member for City of Durham(Dr. Blackman-Woods) also mentioned this point earlier. I agree with the Committee’s findings, and we need to do more to ensure that alternative renewable technologies, such as wave, tidal and solar power, are examined and encouraged. I am encouraged by the work that is being done in countries such as Holland, which have a considerable number of offshore wind turbines, generating a significant amount of energy. In this country, whenever wind turbines are mentioned, they provoke opposition and obstacles. People claim to find them unsightly—in Holland, they are called visual pollution. I have to say that there are many things that I would put in that category before wind turbines. Perhaps if we went offshore, there would be fewer such problems. I accept that offshore wind turbines and the use of solar, wave and tidal energy will cost more, but we are talking about the well-being and the very future of mankind. In the greater scheme of things such investments are worth while, because in the mid to long term they will become cost-effective.

I am mindful that other Members want to speak so I shall conclude my comments. I very much welcome the
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cross-party consensus that we have found on the Bill and I hope that there will be no more obstacles to its passage into law.

12 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I, too, extend my condolences to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and also my congratulations on the successful progress of the Bill so far. In fact, I am feeling so magnanimous that I shall even extend my sympathy to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), although not quite to the extent of wishing him such a speedy recovery that he emerges on the Conservative Benches before the end of the debate, given the precedents on Report.

Mr. Chope: Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has already contributed to this debate it would not be possible for him to make another speech?

Chris Huhne: I fully appreciate that point and am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making it. However, I have noticed that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has a certain influence on other Members, to which the hon. Member for Christchurch may be particularly well able to attest.

Climate change is an urgent issue. I was especially pleased that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned the gulf stream or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, the thermohaline circulation. The UK faces not the advantageous outcome of gentle global warming in the south of England that allows us all to grow vines in our gardens but, were the gulf stream to switch off, a fall in average temperatures of between 4(o) and 6(o), and perhaps as much as 10(o) in the winter. Recent research by Harry Bryden and his team at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, Europe’s largest and pre-eminent marine research centre, found that there had been a substantial fall in the strength of the gulf stream since 1992. I very much hope that it is being affected by short-term considerations, but it certainly underlines the urgency of tackling climate change and the importance of addressing it politically.

The Bill contains useful measures. It sets targets and asks Ministers to report on them, and it enables Ministers to take action on a series of measures, including microgeneration and energy efficiency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, I regret that some provisions have been dropped, especially those on renewable heat obligations. I hope that some of what remains, including some of the elements introduced by the Government with a degree of caution, will not be used; for example, I urge the Minister to tell us that he does not intend, in current circumstances, to use subsection (2) of clause 4. It provides that subsection (1), which allows the Secretary of State to set national microgeneration targets,

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It is an all-purpose let-out and I hope that it has been included only for emergencies—genuine cases where the Government are not able to proceed, rather than something that they intend to trigger early on.

Generally, there are some useful measures in the Bill. I particularly hope that the Government will avail themselves of the powers that they would be given under clause 7, to enable the buy-back of surplus electricity from microgeneration schemes, because that would make an enormous difference to the incentives, about which we have heard from a number of hon. Members, for households to install such equipment. It would make a lot of sense for the Government to encourage energy efficiency. We know, and I hope that it will be properly reflected in the Minister’s energy review, when it is published, that energy efficiency schemes are possibly among the most efficient ways to fill any gap in the supply of electricity.

I think that there is only one source of energy for the generation of electricity that is even more economical than the National Audit Office has found energy efficiency schemes to be: onshore wind power. I therefore hope that that is firmly in the mix, and the Bill would indeed allow that. For example, it would also allow the Government to designate, under the permitted development order powers, the installation of wind turbines automatically. Given the importance of this issue, it seem nonsense that we can install Sky television dishes, but not wind turbines under existing powers.

Clause 19 is also excellent, and I commend it to the House because it deals with community energy schemes. It would be particularly important in ensuring that local communities are in favour of onshore wind schemes and that they can participate sometimes in the benefits and certainly in the process of consultation before the construction of such schemes. An example of that is the Gigha scheme in Scotland, which has gone very smoothly. We have heard a lot from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the difficulties that occasionally arise about specific schemes, and those provisions could be one of the ways to resolve them.

A central theme of the Bill is the possibility of proceeding rapidly with decentralisation. We have also heard from hon. Members about the amount of waste that occurs in the generation of electricity from fossil fuels. Roughly a fifth of energy actually reaches the end-user and can be used usefully, once waste heat during the generating process, waste in transmission and waste in end-use are taken into account. The localisation and decentralisation of electricity generation makes an awful lot of sense. Of course the problem is that it is not the sort of solution that naturally appeals to civil servants sitting in Whitehall who like a big bang and who like to be able to wave a magic wand and say that they have the magic bullet and the magic solution. It is inevitably a solution that involves the activity of many millions of people, but given the technological progress that we have made, it is a very important solution, and I welcome the powers granted in the Bill that would help to achieve it. That brings me to my final point, as I am also aware that other hon. Members want to speak and that time marches on.

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