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Renewable Energy

Volume 406: debated on Thursday 5 June 2003

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If she will make a statement on the prospects for renewable energy plants fuelled by willow coppice. [116512]

The Government are committed to the development of all forms of bioenergy, including renewable energy plants fuelled by wood coppice. We provide support, ranging from research and development to the creation of a market for energy generation from energy crops, including wood coppice, through the renewables obligation and the bioenergy capital grants scheme.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the future of the Arbre plant near Selby, which is fuelled by willow coppice, has implications not only for the 50 growers who supply willow coppice to the plant, but for confidence in the entire energy crops sector? Will he ensure that a meeting takes place urgently between his officials, the new American owners of the plant, representatives of the European Commission, which has invested £10 million in the plant, and the Non-Fossil Fuels Purchasing Agency, which has a contract with the plant, to see if there is a viable way forward?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and contact has been made with the company already. The decision to sell to that company was made by the liquidator. It is very much in everyone's interests that there should be the sort of contact that my hon. Friend seeks, and that we do everything possible to encourage the new owners to take Arbre forward as an ongoing and, I hope, viable proposition. I should make it absolutely clear that we have never turned down any request for support for Arbre. It is, of course, open to the new owners to talk to us about that as well.

What percentage of our energy will be provided by willow coppicing, and how does that compare with the possible percentage that could be produced through encouraging the burning of waste paper and packaging?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures, for the very good reason that we do not have prescriptive targets for each particular technology. There is a great deal of potential in the biomass sector, and willow coppice is only one of the sources. So far, however, very little of that potential has been fulfilled. I agree with the implication of the question, which is that waste technologies contribute more in the short term 'when they are counted as renewables, and they have the potential to contribute much more. I have visited a number of such plants, and I have been impressed with some of the technologies involved. We should not rule out any of the technologies, but it is extremely important that we test, sooner rather than later, some of the assumptions about whether the technologies will contribute anything of significance to the targets. We are putting a lot of money into biomass, and we want to see some return on it soon.

My hon. Friend will be aware that most of the product burned in the renewable energy plants is not willow coppice but waste wood products. What is the economic or environmental sense of a subsidy that allows wood products to be purchased at £40 a tonne, when the wood panel industry can buy it at £20 a tonne? That industry keeps 15,000 people in jobs. Instead of burning wood products and producing carbon, it recycles the material and ensures that the carbon is locked in. Surely there is a need for an urgent review, as was suggested earlier? We need to protect those 15,000 jobs and end carbon emissions to the atmosphere by recycling and locking that carbon in.

As I said in response to the earlier question, this is an important matter. A review of the renewables obligation and of any anomalies that it might throw up is under way. I should be very pleased to meet industry representatives and any hon. Members who might have a proper interest in this matter.