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House of Lords

Thursday, 16 December 2004.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Chester): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Renewable Energy: Tidal Lagoons

Lord Williams of Elvel asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, tidal lagoons, as with other forms of large-scale barrage, are technically feasible and are applications of available and well understood technologies. The technology has a potential to contribute to the UK's renewable energy targets and is eligible for support through the renewables obligation. The environmental impacts and economies of any proposed scheme would need to be assessed by the developers and planning authorities on a case-by-case basis.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful for that response. I am very glad to hear that the Government feel that the technology is, first, viable and, secondly, economic. Would it not be the case that, if we went ahead with this, as the tides are more reliable than wind, we would not have to plaster our Welsh hills with these beastly windmills?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I know that my noble friend is vigorous in ensuring that the Welsh countryside is not in any sense, in his view, damaged. However, we are looking to a mix of different sources of energy. Quite aside from tidal lagoons, there are other wave and tidal stream technologies which are becoming more advanced and in which I would assert that the United Kingdom is the leading world player. Half a dozen such schemes are being considered; they may have a rather less detrimental environmental effect.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is aware of the fact that there is a proposal for a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay. Is he in a position to give your Lordships any further information about the progress of that proposal?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am. The tidal electric scheme has been advanced and been taken through a number of stages of consideration. The only reservation that I would want to express to your Lordships this morning is that there has also been an assessment, as there has to be in the DTI, of whether the economics of
 
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the scheme look to be as credible as those promoting the scheme have asserted. We do not at present believe, on the basis of an independent assessment, that it is as economic. However, if it were to prove so—were we to be wrong and were tidal electric to be right—it should be a scheme that is very attractive to developers.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I was surprised to hear the Minister mention detrimental effects in connection with tidal lagoons, because I believe that one of their benefits is that they do not have detrimental effects. However, he mentioned the independent assessment, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, did in our debate on 13 January. As the DTI keeps referring to the independent assessment as the only reason why it is not very keen on the technology, could that assessment now be made public?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the reason why the assessment has not been made public—and, I believe, will not be made public—is that the issues raised in it were economically sensitive for the company involved in the scheme. It would have compromised the company's business case were it to have been published. None the less, I make the general assertion that there are real advantages in barrage technology. It is, however, also true—and the environmental specialists have made this point—that this technology tends to sterilise the floor of the sea directly underneath it. That is a balance that needs to be taken into account.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords—

Lord Peston: My Lords, it would not surprise me if it were the turn of Members on this side, given that three have spoken from that side already.

I am in the tiny minority of Peers who do not find windmills unattractive; indeed, I find them quite attractive, but that is by the way. Given the fact that, as I understand it, the energy sector is privatised, I am slightly puzzled as to what the Government's role is in all this. I am sympathetic to the idea of these lagoons—but where do the Government get in? I take it that they do not propose to bear some of the costs that should fall on private enterprise.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not believe that my right honourable friend the Chancellor has any view of bearing any of the costs that would fall on private enterprise. But a number of issues arise from these proposals: issues arising out of Section 36 of the Electricity Act; issues concerning Defra about anything deposited on the seabed; the issue of transport consents in navigation, on which we had a major debate during the passage of the Energy Bill; and issues relating to the lease of the Crown Estate for access to the site. All those are good and legitimate reasons why the Government assess such proposals.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, the Minister left out one of the big issues—the renewable energy commitment that we have under the Kyoto agreement. He told the
 
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noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that tidal power was technically feasible and would contribute to renewable energy targets. When will the Government realise that nuclear power falls into both those categories?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I had a sneaking suspicion that that question might be asked. We have not ruled out the nuclear option. Every time I say that, I know that it arouses some humour, if not passion, on Benches on both sides of your Lordships' House. The reality is that we will meet our Kyoto targets, but we have to do a great deal more to meet the targets that the Government have expressed for themselves. I want to acknowledge that straightforwardly. We want to see a mix of the available technologies, particularly those that are carbon-benign. We will be working hard on that, and this may be one of the options that will help.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, while welcoming the possible development of tidal lagoons and other forms of renewable energy, would the Minister agree that the more fundamental priority of the Government's energy policy should be a continual downward pressure on the actual utilisation overall of energy, consistent with our economic aims?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I certainly agree with the right reverend Prelate, and it is one of the building blocks of the architecture of government policy in the energy White Paper and elsewhere that we should try to be as energy-efficient as we possibly can. A huge amount of advice has been given on how that can be achieved. We shall certainly pursue that objective; there is no point in creating energy, by whatever route, if we waste it.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, in the Minister's answer to the question asked by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, he trotted out in a rather embarrassed way that the Government have not ruled out nuclear energy. When will the Government put him out of his misery and make up their mind?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, noble Lords will know that I am very seldom miserable—and I am not going to be today, either. The nuclear option remains open. Encouragement of research around both nuclear generation and decommissioning, which is the other fundamental issue, are live projects into which a great deal of public money is put. We shall most certainly want to keep all the options open. No one is insensitive to the argument that we should not allow an energy gap to appear.

Power Stations

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, power stations with a total capacity of 6.9 gigawatts have received central
 
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government consent under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, but have yet to begin construction. Of those, seven are gas-fired plants and one, with a capacity of 0.4 gigawatts, is a coal-fired gasification plant.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. However, is it not a fact that according to the latest report of the Joint Energy Security of Supply Working Group, no construction has yet begun on any of those power stations, apart from those powered by wind? That is despite the fact that many consents were given, as long ago as November 2002 and will expire in November 2005. Is that not a disturbing factor, bearing in mind that the ageing coal-fired and nuclear plants will be progressively withdrawn and we could be left with a gap which wind alone cannot fill?


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