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The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned the importance of solar heat and solar thermal technology, and in the renewables strategy solar heat plays a substantial role. When we break that down, it means a large number of small installations on the
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roofs of houses and small-scale commercial properties, and in agricultural areas and so on—all of which individually make a small contribution but collectively add up to the proposed large contribution to the strategy. That would probably mean several hundred thousand installations on the basis that, currently, we install a few thousand per year throughout the country. That represents a quantum change in the rate of such installations, and in their distribution throughout different sectors of domestic energy, small business and agricultural environments.

The clauses in the Bill that seek to remove the third impediment to such installations, the planning arrangements, are therefore potentially very important and valuable. Those impediments have largely been removed in terms of solar thermal technology, but, for other important technologies such as micro wind and, particularly, air source heat pumps, which I believe will also make a substantial contribution to the 15 per cent. energy target by 2020, the impediments remain.

Heat pumps, incidentally, are scheduled and projected to provide some 4 per cent. of the 15 per cent. energy target. Again, my maths partially elude me, but that represents about 0.5 per cent. of the total future renewable energy supply, and it would also be based on a large number of small installations that, collectively, would make up the total. Therefore, the idea that they should fall within the general permitted development order is, as far as domestic properties are concerned, very important, but the Bill goes much further by clarifying the environment, as far as such planning is concerned, in the commercial and agricultural sectors.

On occasions, we have talked about microgeneration as if it were all about putting a small turbine, a small solar thermal device or a solar panel or two on our roofs. However, some of the biggest gains in the not-too-distant future will relate to small and medium-sized enterprises enhancing the insulation of their properties and putting money-earning renewable energy devices on their roofs, around their premises or within the curtilage of their agricultural land to enhance their businesses and secure their energy supplies.

There is an impediment, however, because most small business rent their premises, so there is no enormous incentive either for them or for the landlords of such properties to equip themselves with such devices. The Bill offers some succour, however, in the clauses relating to council tax payments. In Committee, I hope that the business rates for small-scale commercial premises will be considered, because they represent an important means of removing a number of disincentives to the installation of renewable devices.

Overall, the ambition that we now properly have on microgeneration and small-scale generation is real and attainable—attainable, provided that we diagnose the future impediments to the imposition of such energy production devices and systematically ensure that those impediments are ameliorated or eliminated from the system. The Energy Saving Trust recently projected that, by 2050, 30 to 40 per cent. of our overall energy supplies could arise from distributed, small-scale renewable energy at local, district, housing and small-scale commercial property levels.

My concern is that that ambition, which could play such a key role in the provision of our future energy supplies, could be tripped up by impediments that we
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can easily remove. The Bill goes a long way towards removing a number of those impediments, and I commend it for that. If, in a few years’ time, we get the level of renewable energy generation in our communities and homes which is not only desirable but essential as far as our energy mix is concerned, we will be able to look back and say that this Bill played a part in making the change. For that, we should thank the hon. Member for East Surrey.

10.20 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak from the Front Bench in support of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). He is not only my former boss, but my enduring mentor and inspiration. Since my arrival in Parliament in 2001, he has been an extraordinary influence on the whole debate about not only microgeneration, but climate change and the broader importance of the environment. He has worked as Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee and, as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he pulled the Conservative party on to a new agenda. That will be seen as a historic turning point not only in the fortunes of the Conservative party but in the general debate about such issues in the United Kingdom. His gravitas has meant that he has been able to muster an impressive consensus across the Chamber, and not just today; during the preparation of the Bill, he has tapped parts of the political establishment that others would struggle to reach. I congratulate him on this excellent Bill.

I will not speak for as long as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), but then I do not have his technical expertise. He is an expert on these issues and I hope that the Minister listened carefully to all his comments because he made sound points, particularly about the detail of the Bill.

If I had to encapsulate what the Bill is about, I would say that its message is that the microgeneration agenda has come of age. That agenda has been pulled from the fringes of politics and the energy debate into the mainstream. That is not only because of climate change, but because of how technology is advancing and how the consumer’s interest is now about becoming more involved, rather than just being a passive recipient of energy. The rising cost of old fossil fuels means that people are becoming more energy-efficient and want to play a more active role in energy production.

The Bill is incredibly timely. It says to the Government that, for a long time, other voices—from the Conservative party and their own Benches—have been calling for a far more radical and ambitious approach to microgeneration. Now it appears that the Government are joining that consensus, and that is very welcome. In particular, they have accepted the need for feed-in tariffs to change the economics of microgeneration and create the incentives to push the issues forward. However, it is not enough for the Government to accept the agenda—they have to grab it and get on with it.

The Bill builds on the success of the Planning and Energy Bill, which was brought to the House last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), and on previous work in the Government’s Energy Bill and the microgeneration strategy. This Bill says that we should try to make real progress now, before it is too
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late—before people become cynical and start thinking that this is all just another exercise in tilting the status quo with further incremental changes to existing patterns of energy use.

The Bill might be modest, but as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, it contains important measures that, we hope, could have a disproportionate impact on energy users, energy consumption and opportunities for consumers. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said, it is not just a technical measure; we must not lose sight of the opportunities that it will present for consumers and businesses. There are huge opportunities for the microgeneration sector to become a much larger employer and an engine of growth in the energy sector. It can create new, long-lasting, satisfying jobs through which people can build careers and support families—the sort of jobs of which we want to see more in the 21st century. We do not just want to see the UK as an attractive place to deploy microgeneration equipment and technology. We want it to be an economy in which it makes sense to build such equipment and commercialise the research and development. If the Government are responsive, the Bill will go a long way towards making that happen. I hope that the Minister will rise to the opportunity that the Bill gives him and his Government to get with the programme and join the consensus in the Commons.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is rightly enthusiastic about microgeneration and the opportunity that it offers for future UK energy policy. Will he tell us what the Conservative party commitment is on what our renewables targets should be by 2020, in relation to the generation of electricity and energy as a whole? I have looked for the answer, but have not found it. If his party were in government, what would be its target? That is the context in which the Bill would play a significant part.

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. We do not yet have a specific target on microgeneration per se. However, we do know that it ought to play a much larger role, although there are a lot of barriers to get out of the way. Broadening the scope of what we mean by microgeneration is another important point of detail. The technical threshold for microgeneration is set far too low; a lot of the technologies included in the definitions in the Bill are applicable at a much larger scale. As the technology, the enthusiasm and the grid evolve, a lot of these things will be better or more efficiently deployed at community or larger-business level than at householder level.

A lot of the debate is exciting for people at home. The issues have resonance with voters because they can see the potential to deploy something in their homes, whether wind turbines, solar panels on their roofs or ground source heat pumps. However, many of the technologies, particularly combined heat and power, are tricky to install at the level of the individual home. I know that because I am trying to install a combined heat and power boiler at my home and it is still not there despite the supplier’s promises from last year. It is still not quite ready and the technology is certainly not ready for mass roll-out.

A lot of the technologies are small, certainly compared with the large-scale generation of the utility companies, but perhaps they are just beyond the size appropriate to
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go into an individual home or beyond the means of an individual home owner to deploy. We need to do more work. We will look carefully at the issues and I hope that we will be able to support the Government’s microgeneration strategy; if we form the next Government, we will certainly seek to build on it. The detail is key, and the updating of the Government’s microgeneration strategy is vital. The message going over the top must be that we want to push the issue forward now. We do not want yet more iterative consultations or yet another review. We want to grip the agenda and produce something for people to work with and to enable people to start installing microgeneration technology in their homes this year. That is what we are talking about.

Feed-in tariffs help, as does removing unnecessary planning obstacles. Removing the possible disincentive on council tax would help significantly. Council tax plays a disproportionately important role in people’s judgments, as they go to huge lengths to avoid paying what is undoubtedly the most unpopular tax of all. If there is concern, well founded or not, that people will be pushed into another bracket of council tax as a result of improving their property by installing these technologies, that will probably cancel out whatever feed-in tariffs or planning law changes are put in place. Clause 6 is important to assure consumers that improving the energy generation capacity of their home they will not push them into a new bracket.

Conservative Members strongly support this Bill. A greater microgen deployment is crucial. We support the Government’s target on microgeneration, but we will be looking to see whether there is scope not only to match them but beat them by going further. However, there is no point in talking about higher targets and more ambitious goals if the mechanisms are not in place to deliver and there are no proper incentives to help people to deploy these technologies.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, I will not rehearse the arguments about the imperatives for action in the face of climate change. I think that everybody here today shares that view, because I see huge expertise and wisdom around me on both sides of the Chamber. I look forward to listening to the rest of the debate, which I hope will be short so that we can get on with getting this important measure on to the statute book.

10.32 am

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) generously thanked a whole list of people for their help in preparing the Bill and supporting its presentation before the House, but the one person he failed to mention was himself. It is important that there is, across the House, a recognition of the role that he has played not only in bringing this Bill before us but in keeping climate change and the shift into renewable and sustainable energy systems on the political agenda, especially when many Members in all parts of the House were uninterested in it for long periods of the past 10 or 20 years. It is right that we recognise not only the specific credit to which he is entitled in relation to this Bill but the longer-term, bigger-picture credits that are to be associated with him.

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The hon. Gentleman was also unduly modest in identifying the merits of the Bill. It has a role in tying together a whole series of measures that have been introduced by this Government, particularly driven by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Minister of State, all of which are to be welcomed. I suspect that the Bill may have greater significance than the hon. Gentleman claimed because, if we look at what is happening at a global level, what concerns me most is that all the recent figures about global carbon emissions show that they are rising at a faster rate than the worst-case scenarios offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—at about 3.3 per cent. annually. The danger is that that takes us into some of the most worrying prospects of the climate change agenda, driven by feedback mechanisms in the planet that will be beyond the control of any, or even all, global Governments. That is the nightmare scenario that many of us fear. Exactly where that may take us can probably best be seen by making a brief visit to the cinema to see Peter Postlethwaite’s film, “The Age of Stupid”, which is the starkest of warnings as to where the planet could end up if we fail to act dynamically in the decade ahead of us.

That is where microgeneration—decentralised energy—will have a much more prominent part to play than some of the other aspects that have, perhaps understandably, commanded centre stage in debates in this House. The reality is that whether or not carbon capture and storage works, it is unlikely to be a significant factor in reductions in carbon emissions before 2020. For those who believe in nuclear power as a solution, that too is unlikely to be delivering new energy until the post-2020 era. However, all the dynamic changes that are required will have to be delivered pre-2020.

The most accessible area for us to make real progress is in the field of decentralised energy that is generated, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, at a local, community, town and city level. The scope for that is vast. I have been looking at some of the current projections about where and how microgeneration can deliver on this agenda. In truth, as well as being fearful of the consequences of a lack of action on climate change, I am equally excited by the scope that we have for dramatically changing the pattern not only of our energy security picture but of our economic prospects.

A couple of weeks ago, a company called Delta Energy and Environment produced a report that said that, if the UK took seriously the shift into renewable energy by 2020, the economic consequence would be to give us a £12.6 billion surplus in our energy accounts as opposed to what could be monumental deficits if we do not invest in our own renewables but become increasingly dependent on the supply of energy from external sources. We could achieve that surplus if we invest with confidence in our ability to meet our own renewable energy needs. In practical terms, that translates not only into energy security at a local level but job security and job prospects for the generations of young people who are coming through and would love to be part of the solution to today’s and tomorrow’s problems rather than just part of the problem.

I am pleased that we are seeing, as a Parliament, the possibility of an incremental upward adjustment of what we mean by microgeneration, as the Bill refers to a
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10 MW capacity for microgeneration. That becomes phenomenally important when we start to evaluate the different sources of energy that are currently available to us.

Having come to this House on a wet and gloomy May morning in London, it is hard for us to grasp that the planet still receives from the sun 1,500 times more energy than its population can consume. However, that remains the case, and it is part of the solar renewables agenda that we have to connect to, even though other parts of the world may be able to do so more readily and abundantly. There are also the abundant supplies of renewable energy that come from the wind, from the tides and from beneath the earth.

The specific dimension that I want to focus on is the much neglected one of energy from our own UK waste, particularly in the form of biogas that can be recovered from the recycling of household waste in the form of anaerobic digestion. At the moment, we have a miserably poor record of making use of what is seen as a problem here but recognised as a resource elsewhere. The UK currently recycles about 50,000 tonnes a year of household decayable waste through anaerobic digestion, which is less than 0.4 per cent. of our household waste.

If we were to have a more ambitious approach to recycling waste and turning it into biogas by anaerobic digestion, we would have a huge opportunity to give ourselves access to renewable gas supplies and heat. The National Grid Company recently produced a study stating that if we were to take the matter seriously in the UK, by 2020 we could supply 50 per cent. of our domestic heating needs from the gas extracted from recycling our domestic waste. It stated that there were no technical difficulties about connection with the grid and that it was simply a matter of political will and how we incentivise that.

That is why I support and endorse the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) expressed that we will try to synchronise the feed-in tariffs that will be introduced for electricity with those for gas and heat. It would be much better for the UK if we could introduce a single simple and coherent scheme, so that those doing the investing knew what were to be the relative costs, risks and merits of the three elements of renewables. It does not help if people are left trying to guess what they might be for two of the elements, with only electricity being introduced with certainty. I know that there are procedural difficulties in that, but I encourage the Minister to introduce a co-ordinated view of the shift to renewables.

I have been looking at what the shift to renewables will mean in the context of what is happening in another country, specifically Sweden. It estimates that, by the same date of 2020, it will be able to produce 10 TW of energy simply from the recycling of its domestic waste. It can add to that a further 60 TW from the recycling of other waste in the system, which will effectively cover the entirety of its carbon emissions from transport.

Sweden is seeking to focus on using biogas to change to a green gas transport system. Other countries are seeking to harness the gas that they produce and put it into the grid. For the fuel-poor in the UK, that would make a massive difference, because 80 per cent. of their energy costs come from heating their homes. If we were to understand that and accept the National Grid Company’s
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invitation, we would be able to offer something quite dramatic and astonishing to the 5.5 million households in the UK that are living in fuel poverty.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the same time as helping the fuel-poor and driving down costs, that would drive us away from our dependency on other countries for our gas supplies? With the political turbulence throughout Europe at the moment, we would not be so reliant on other countries turning the tap on or off.

Alan Simpson: That is absolutely right, and in some ways it is almost a no-brainer.

Mike Penning: Oh.

Alan Simpson: That was not in any way meant as an insult; I just wished to question why we cannot occupy the space that the hon. Gentleman describes.

I brought across representatives of a couple of German biogas companies to talk to people in my constituency who were very keen on moving into biodigestion of domestic waste. One thing that staggered not the community but the local authority representatives was the response when the Germans were asked what the costs would be. They said that that would depend entirely on the period of the waste disposal contract. They said, “We will offer it to you in very simple terms. We will guarantee fixed prices for your gas for the whole period of the waste disposal contract, whether 10 years or 15 years, rising only by RPI.” The local authority representatives looked as though their brains were struggling to grasp that, and one of them said, “How can you do that in a world of spiralling gas prices in the international gas markets?” The German representative said, “Precisely because we are not dependent on the international gas markets. We are not captives of the spiralling prices. We will generate gas from your waste—as long as you keep supplying the waste, we will keep producing the gas. We make our money out of the gate fee.”

We could become consumers of green gas in precisely the way that we can currently become consumers of green electricity. The benefits of energy security and stable prices are therefore of dual importance, not just to the nation as a whole but specifically to those who have found spiralling energy costs plunging them back into fuel poverty.

Dr. Whitehead: I wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s sentiments about renewable gas. From his observations of municipal contracts, a number of which are coming up for long-term renewal over the next couple of years, does he agree that bringing forward a renewable heat incentive to underpin the renewal of those contracts could be very important in securing contracts for the anaerobic digestion and gas production that he suggests is necessary?

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