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If Europe were to rely on transmission lines for the import of electricity from the middle east and north Africa, those could feasibly be targets for terrorists. But the transmission grid can be designed to accommodate damage in much the same way that the internet was designed to be resilient in the face of military attack. Rather than rely on a few large transmission lines,
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electricity may be transmitted over an interconnected grid of smaller lines. That means that electricity can always bypass difficult or damaged parts of the network. If necessary, transmission lines may be buried underground or laid under water where they would be much less vulnerable to attack. Airtricity, for example, has proposed a supergrid of this type across the whole of Europe, composed entirely of buried cables.

In short, while we need to think through the energy security implications of expanding CSP production, we should not exaggerate them, or allow them to detract from the very strong argument before us in favour of CSP and the creation an HVDC grid.

I hope that the Minister will use today’s debate to underline his support for the technology and the creation of a grid, and I hope that he will set out a raft of measures aimed at facilitating the use of CSP in the UK as early as possible. I would like to end my contribution by paying tribute to the work of TREC and its supporters, particularly Dr. Gerry Wolff, TREC’s UK co-ordinator, in promoting CSP and the HVDC grid and in putting forward a powerful scientific and environmental case in support of them. Its efforts have done an enormous amount to advance the cause of renewable energy in the UK and throughout Europe.

6.14 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) made interesting—perhaps for many people listening, unusual—and important points about concentrated solar power and the case for creating a high-voltage direct current grid.

I came into the Chamber during the earlier debate on Wales—I felt that I, as a mere Englishman, was trespassing—and I heard a reference to Cicero. To raise the cultural tone of this debate—not that it needs raising, following my hon. Friend’s eloquent and evidence-based speech—I remember that I once bumped into my hon. Friend, who is a friend in many respects, at a concert by Mr. Bob Dylan. I was searching for a suitable text for today and came up with:

I know that my hon. Friend will listen carefully to my speech but if, by the end of it, he can identify the song, I will be impressed.

Of course, climate change presents a considerable challenge, which affects us socially, economically and politically, and it requires a paradigm shift in our method of sourcing competitive and reliable energy supplies in future. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. from 1990 levels by 2050. That requires several radical and bold steps.

I want to reflect on some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised about the specific technology he discussed and to re-emphasise our commitment to developing renewable technologies generally.

The Government are firmly committed to developing sustainable supplies of renewable energy for the UK and throughout Europe and we want to play our part in encouraging others on an international scale to do the
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same. The Government are committed to the expansion of renewables, and that sits alongside various other measures that we need to take, including on energy efficiency, civil nuclear power, cleaner use of fossil fuels through carbon capture and storage technology and so on.

As my hon. Friend said, the world has huge solar resources, on which concentrated solar power technology can clearly draw. I do not want to overstate the case because our role is currently modest, but the UK has participated in several European and international projects that examine the development and marketing of concentrated solar power systems. Work was carried out in the 1990s, when at least two small studies were commissioned on behalf of the then Department of Trade and Industry, and CSP plants now operate in California, Spain and other parts of the world. An organisation called SolarPaces has been set up by the International Energy Agency and is engaged in technology development, pilot projects and promotion in the relevant “sunbelt” parts of the world. Sadly, my hon. Friend was right to say that they do not include his constituency or mine. However, we in the UK have played our part in the work.

The debate focuses on the key issue of how the UK could benefit from concentrated solar power. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient sun resources for that technology in the UK. Therefore, for concentrated solar power to be of value here, it would be necessary to establish the HVDC transmission network that my hon. Friend proposed. I accept the argument that an HVDC network has the potential to deliver energy across long distances with minimal losses. However, building and maintaining an infrastructure of HVDC transmission lines and managing a network that feeds into national grids across Europe is an enormous and expensive task, as my hon. Friend acknowledged.

My officials have discussed CSP with international counterparts, and there is a general consensus that building the infrastructure would be costly. However, some of our European colleagues are engaged in developing that technology. For example, we believe that support for CSP in Germany is primarily for developing a manufacturing capability, rather than for applying the technology within national borders.

We believe that fair, open and well regulated markets are the best way for us to achieve the massive investment in the clean energy needed, and to create opportunities for the most efficient and cost-effective technologies and solutions to develop and succeed. Concentrated solar power could have a part to play along with other technologies.

Here in Britain, the renewables obligation—our market mechanism for supporting renewable electricity generation—has, alongside other measures, such as the low-carbon building programme, been successful in nearly doubling renewable generation since it was introduced in 2002. Current Government policy is already set to deliver £1 billion of investment in renewables by 2010. The amount of renewable electricity eligible under the renewables obligation has almost trebled since its introduction, although I recognise that we started from a low base in Britain and that a lot more remains to be done.

We have also recently given consent to many major renewables projects, including the world’s biggest offshore
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wind farm, the London Array, and more than 20 other wind farms, including three consents issued today, at Keadby in South Yorkshire, Tween bridge in north Lincolnshire, and Gunfleet sands off the coast of Essex. We also recently granted permission for what will be one of the world’s largest biomass plants, which will be built in Port Talbot. As my hon. Friend knows, we are taking a hard look at the feasibility of a tidal power project across the Severn estuary and are currently in the stakeholder engagement process. If such a project is feasible, it could generate some 5 per cent. of Great Britain’s electricity needs, and from a clean, indigenous resource. A full formal public consultation will take place in early 2010.

I mention those things because we need a focus on our climate change objectives and a focus on renewable technologies. I have outlined some of the things that have perhaps a more immediate short to medium-term application in Britain. On solar power, we see—rather more modestly than my hon. Friend—an increasing
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number of solar panels on the roofs of people’s houses, which use a relatively cost-effective renewable technology. We also see the development of something that is as yet more expensive, but still important, namely photovoltaics, which produce not just hot water but electricity. We have a range of technologies that offer hope as we move forward.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to follow developments in concentrated solar power and long-distance electricity transmission. He referred to a number of experts with whom he is in touch. If he has time, I should be happy to meet him and some of his colleagues so that I can become better informed. I again thank my hon. Friend for introducing this relatively novel but certainly very interesting debate about solar power. I congratulate him on his enthusiasm and his strong information base.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Six o’clock.

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