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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the convention. We wait to see how that develops. On Barnett, the Welsh Assembly Government are conducting a review to assess the impact and explore possibilities, but the extra spending per person in Wales is significant. The nearly 130 per cent. increase in the block grant since 1997 cannot be discounted, and it did not happen by accident. It happened because we voted it through in this place. On cross-border issues, I welcome the
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interest, particularly of late. The Welsh Affairs Committee, under the excellent stewardship of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, will examine a range of cross-border issues of vital concern, as the devolution settlement matures.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke about pensioners in Wales. Although there is always more that can be done, it is important to remember what we have delivered, including winter fuel payments of £200, and £300 for those over 80, the free TV licence and the pension credit guarantee, which has increased. We are determined to deliver for pensioners in Wales and we will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, in his excellent contribution, highlighted the importance of the role of the Secretary of State in Cabinet and in British-Irish relations. He spoke about Wales as being not a fortress Wales, but an outward-looking and internationalist Wales, a global Wales, and he is absolutely right.

The new Order in Council process has been the subject of some discussion. As my hon. Friend said, we were at an early stage of this new democratic process. I know that the Select Committee and the Wales Office are keen to monitor the process and the volume and see how we can make improvements along the way. We are all agreed on the necessity of making the process work. There is no better example of the importance of Welsh MPs to this place and of the role of this place in scrutiny than the work that is being carried out by all members of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a passionate case for English votes for English laws. We will have to agree to disagree on that. Some of the arguments for that were demolished, I understand, by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). The armed forces and historic regiments, particularly in Monmouth, were also covered by the hon. Member for Monmouth in his contribution. He is right to say that we should not only treasure, but properly safeguard the servicemen and women in those regiments.

The hon. Gentleman’s background in the policing scheme and his role as a special constable came to the fore. He welcomed the Flanagan report, in which there is much to be welcomed, and he offered a couple of interesting suggestions for improvements on it, which I am sure will have been heard during the debate and by Home Office Ministers. He also spoke about vocational skills in prisons. We are concerned to ensure that those who go through our prison system come out with the skills that they need to go back into wider society.

Like a number of other hon. Members, the hon. Member for Monmouth spoke about the local government revenue settlement. There are always difficulties with such settlements and the distribution formula, but we must accept that the changes were the subject of significant consultation and were agreed with local authorities through the Welsh Local Government Association.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) made an excellent contribution. He talked about the way in which his constituency in west Wales and wider west Wales had been transformed in the last decade, something that we
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see in all constituencies, on the bread and butter issues of hospitals, schools and infrastructure and the falls in unemployment, and he was absolutely right. He majored on renewable energy and what we can make of it, which is a critical issue for Wales. The Wales Office, like the Welsh Assembly Government, is committed to driving that forward.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) talked about bullying in schools. All schools in Wales must by law have a written anti-bullying policy and the Assembly issues a document entitled “Respecting Others: Anti-Bullying Guidance” to all schools and LEAs. It is a major issue and the Assembly Government are keen to continue improving the way in which they tackle it. He also talked about cross-border issues and promoting tourism in Wales, which is close to my heart. I am sure that as he travels around Wales, not least in his role as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee and with his knowledge of Wales, he will recognise in the dramatic changes in the architecture of Wales and the focus on the big country of Wales what great potential we have for driving forward tourism. He also welcomed the significant investment in rail in Wales. We have issues with rail in Wales, but we have invested in the valleys lines and in north and south Wales. For the first time in years we are putting money into rail.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) talked about not having policy difference for the sake of it, and he is absolutely right. What is important is the value added; the difference that is made on the streets of Blackwood in Gwent and of Maesteg. He elaborated on his theme of a constitutional cul-de-sac, and he emphasised the need to focus on bread and butter issues on Blackwood high street. He talked tellingly about the importance of using objective 1 money to drive forward earnings, employment and the economy. I thoroughly agree with him. We have to make good use of it. My right hon. Friend alluded to Cicero, which we do not often hear in the Chamber. A senator remarked that when Cicero spoke they would say how well he had spoken, but when Demosthenes spoke they said, “Let’s march.” My right hon. Friend combines both attributes, getting people to the barricades to make a difference on the streets of Blackwood.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) spoke of HMRC and the DWP, and issues around job restructuring. Up to June 2007, the Gershon review has delivered over 2,700 posts relocated to Wales, but he has genuine concerns about HMRC, as do other Members, and we await tomorrow’s announcement. One of the focuses of DWP reform was to deliver more front-end staff. As part of the Lyons review, 1,261 DWP posts are being relocated from London to the south-east and Wales.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) spoke passionately on behalf of his constituents, drawing on his background. He referred to the Health Commission Wales, which is currently under review by the Welsh Assembly Government, and he spoke eloquently on the subject of higher education funding, failing only to mention his singular support for the North East Wales institute of higher education and its application for university status, which we all wish well. He advanced many ideas on higher education reform, which I know will be drawn to the attention of UK Ministers and the Labour party.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) speaks regularly and forcefully on issues that directly affect his constituents, not least on training and industry. He talked about the Barnett formula, which I have mentioned, and he will recognise the increased allocation to Wales that we have delivered. He also addressed the important issue of incapacity benefit, which has exercised a number of hon. Members today. We have more to do on that, and we will do it with the people that we represent. He referred to the importance in that regard of working with GPs and employers and with the one-to-one approach that we piloted through the pathways project.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) gave his own inimitable welcome to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and talked about how Newport is leading the way in biosciences and cell technology, which was excellent to hear. I share his optimism that much of what is happening in Wales is very good.

The hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) talked about her links with Wales, for which she had an optimistic vision. She talked about the Select Committee for the regions. The Modernisation Committee is conducting a review of regional accountability and is taking evidence on that at the moment. It hopes to report in the next two months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) once again advocated the role for St. Athan; it does a brilliant job.

In the coming months, I am sure that there will be long discussions about furthering the devolution settlement, but we must not let them overshadow the real issues for the people of Wales. Employment, health care and education are the things that really matter to the people of Wales. Those are the things that they look to us to deliver. And by Westminster and Wales working together—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I apologise that I can say that only in English.

It being Six o’clock, the motion lapsed, without Question put.

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Concentrated Solar Power

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

6 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to raise this extremely important issue tonight. Concentrated solar power is a concept of literally dazzling simplicity. It is an idea so simple, and with such extraordinary promise as a means of power generation, that it seems astonishing that in Europe we are only just waking up to its potential, more than 20 years after its first use in California.

The technology is very straightforward. A CSP plant uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and create heat. The resultant heat is then used to drive turbines and generators, just like in a conventional power station. Heat can also be stored in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue at night or on cloudy days. For once, no amount of hyperbole is excessive. CSP represents, as The Guardian stated recently,

I could not put it better myself. In terms of its scale, therefore, CSP is a world away from the concept of solar photovoltaic technology such as the domestic roof-top solar panels with which we are more familiar in this country. The only issue with CSP is that it needs direct sunshine, and lots of it, to maximise its potential. Needless to say, it is not a technology that we will be seeing too much of in Dartford—or even, dare I say it, in Croydon, North.

Europe’s first commercially operating CSP plant has just opened in Spain, just outside Seville. It currently generates about 11 MW of electricity—enough to power up to 6,000 homes—but its operators hope that it will eventually produce sufficient power to meet the needs of Seville’s 600,000 residents. The deserts of north Africa, however, offer us the greatest potential as far as CSP is concerned. Each year, each square kilometre of hot desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Indeed, it has been calculated that we could produce the world’s entire electricity needs by covering less than 1 per cent. of the world’s deserts with CSP plants.

Desert-based CSP plants have the added advantage of allowing fresh water for crop cultivation and land irrigation to be created through the desalination of sea water using simply the waste heat from the CSP plants. The partially shaded areas under the solar mirrors also have many potential uses, including crop cultivation. It is even possible to imagine some energy-intensive industries choosing to locate in deserts to take advantage of CSP technology.

The key to realising CSP’s potential, however, is finding a reliable and above all cost-effective means of getting the power from the deserts to major population centres in Europe and elsewhere. The technology does now exist. Using high-voltage direct current, or HVDC, transmission lines, it is feasible and cost-effective to transmit electricity for more than 3,000 km. With modern high-voltage DC transmission, only about 3 per cent. of power is lost for each 1,000 km.
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That means, for instance, that solar electricity could be imported from north Africa to London with a loss of power of only about 10 per cent. That compares extremely favourably with the 50 to 70 per cent. losses that have been accepted for many years in conventional alternating-current grids. Moreover, it has been calculated that 90 per cent. of the world’s population live within 2,700 km of a hot desert and could be supplied with solar energy from there.

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Co-operation, or TREC—a group of scientists and engineers in Europe, the middle east and north Africa—is trying to identify ways of exploiting the energy-generating potential of hot deserts. TREC is calling for the creation of an HVDC supergrid to enable the transmission across the region of energy derived from north African CSP plants.

Like a significant number of hon. Members, I strongly support the case for an HVDC grid. Such a supergrid could allow energy from other renewable sources to be transmitted across Europe. Britain could put in wind power, Norway hydropower and central Europe biomass and geothermal power. An HVDC supergrid could also be integrated relatively easily with existing HVAC—high-voltage alternating current—transmission grids. The potential is so large that one may consider the possibility of extending the use of clean solar electricity into areas where gas, oil and coal are currently the dominant sources of energy. It would, for example, be perfectly feasible to expand the use of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, extend the electrification of railways, make greater use of electricity-powered heat pumps, and so on.

Apart from the importing of solar electricity from desert regions, the proposed HVDC supergrid has several other advantages. The chief one is the security of energy supply: a shortfall in any one area could be met by spare capacity in another area or another country. It would also reduce wastage: surplus power in any one area could simply be transferred to where it is needed. Conversely, the impact of the variability of certain renewable technologies such as wind power could be reduced by being able to integrate supply across a wide area. The supergrid could also allow the UK to become a net exporter of clean electricity from our wide array of renewable sources, such as wind, waves and tidal power, which we possess in abundance. The economic opportunities that that would create for the UK are considerable.

Of course, set-up costs are considerable. The estimated cost of a Europe, middle east and north Africa-wide HVDC supergrid comprising 20 transmission lines of about 5 GW each is about €45 billion, while the approximate cost of two 5 GW transmission lines between north Africa and the UK is about €5 billion. However, given that those costs would be shared among several countries and spread over many years, the cost to the UK Government would be reasonable. It is an investment that will begin to look more and more attractive over time as the cost of generating power from renewable sources falls—assuming, of course, that the right package of incentives is put in place—while world oil prices look certain to rise still further as oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract, quite apart from the obvious imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

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There is a pressing need for concerted governmental action to promote CSP and pave the way for an HVDC grid. Although CSP plants are being built and HVDC transmission lines are being installed, actions and changes in policies are needed to remove unnecessary obstacles and smooth the path for such developments. Those changes are needed mainly at the level of the European Union or beyond, but there are things that can be done in the UK. The UK Government can also help to influence the nature of decisions taken in the EU and elsewhere.

The first issue that needs to be tackled is the use of overt or hidden subsidies for non-renewable sources of energy. In a report published in 2004, the New Economics Foundation made a conservative estimate that worldwide subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to about $235 billion a year, and not much seems to have changed since then. Those kinds of support for old-style sources of power have the effect of tilting the playing field against the renewable sources of energy, including solar power, that we now so urgently need. All such subsidies should be removed.

The second challenge is to ensure that a proper price is paid for CO2 emissions. To a large extent, users of fossil fuels are still being allowed to use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon dioxide—that must stop. The European emissions trading scheme has to work better than it has done up until now. In addition, there is a good case for introducing a system of tradable personal carbon allowances throughout the EU and beyond.

Thirdly, we have to ensure that the right framework of incentives is in place to encourage the growth of the renewable sector. Although CSP has quite a long history, its development has been held back because historically fossil fuels have been cheap. That means that it has not yet achieved the economies of scale and refinements in technology that will bring prices down, as is beginning to happen with wind power. If overt and hidden subsidies are removed from non-renewable sources of power, and if a proper price is charged for CO2 emissions, that will make a big difference to the economics. However, there may still be a need for some short to medium-term support for renewable sources of power, including CSP, in the form of feed-in tariffs. That system has proved to be very successful in Germany and Spain. By contrast, the UK’s system of renewables obligation certificates has so far failed to produce the expansion of renewables that we so desperately need. Moreover, if countries in Europe, north Africa and the middle east are to benefit from the CSP technologies, an international framework of feed-in tariffs will probably be needed.

Fourthly, we have to create a single market for electricity throughout Europe and beyond. It should be possible for any customer in the UK to buy solar power from any supplier in north Africa and the middle east in the same way that anyone in the UK can buy electricity from any UK supplier. Both the British Government and the European Commission are in favour of such development within the EU, but that does mean unbundling power generation from power transmission. They need encouragement to make that reform in the face of powerful economic interests that currently enjoy monopolistic benefits from the vertical integration of power generation with power transmission. Although the single market for electricity that exists within the
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EU would be a great help, it would be even better if it were extended beyond Europe to the middle east and north Africa.

Finally, we have to put in place the necessary policies to allow for the creation of a single, integrated high-voltage DC grid across the whole of Europe, the middle east and north Africa, or at the every least across the EU. At present, HVDC lines are commissioned on a case-by-case basis without reference to any overarching plan. It would be better if the EU, in collaboration with countries in north Africa and the middle east, decided to take the lead in terms of building the HVDC supergrid across the region. A good second-best would be a Europe-wide supergrid.

It would probably be best if such a project were funded by several national Governments, which is feasible. We could not integrate the road networks throughout Europe without each country paying its own share, and the same thing could easily be envisaged for a HVDC supergrid. There is no reason why such a grid could not be up and running within 10 to 15 years if it got the right type of governmental backing. It could be done much sooner than that if we simply integrated the existing AC grid and upgraded it to the necessary standard. I am told that that could be achieved in five years.

It is also possible to plan, design and build CSP plants fairly quickly, certainly compared with the process for conventional power plants. The lead-in time for building a CSP plant is about one year and the building time is about three years. Achieving that goal in the UK will require our Government, together with our partners in Europe, to make a strong commitment to CSP and the creation of an HVDC grid. Given the strong economic case made in the Stern report for strong, early action to combat climate change, I suggest that the Government have to act immediately.

I know from the comments made in the media by my hon. Friend the Minister that he shares much of my enthusiasm for CSP and that he appreciates the strong case for an HVDC grid. He has, however, expressed concerns about the long-term security of CSP energy derived from desert plants. While I understand those concerns, I do not necessarily share them. The first point to bear in mind is that CSP, even if we manage to exploit just a tiny fraction of its potential as an energy source, will help to increase substantially available energy supplies and thus diminish the risk of a global grab for energy.

Large-scale CSP production would also add to the global diversity of energy sources and reduce our reliance on conventional fuels. Oil is concentrated in a few small regions, but hot deserts and other areas with high levels of direct sunlight are widely distributed in the world, meaning that no country need be overly dependent on a few sources. The whole of the Mediterranean basin, for instance, has potential as a source of CSP production. It would be very difficult therefore to end up with an OPEC-style solar cartel.

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