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Renewable Energy

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

The renewables obligation is the Government’s key mechanism for encouraging renewable generation. This is supported by around £500 million of spending between 2002 and 2008 in the form of research and development, and capital grants on emerging low-carbon and renewable technologies.

What steps will the Department take to make it easier for small and renewable electricity generators to connect to the national grid?

We can all be encouraged by several developments, such as the Chancellor’s allocation of another £50 million for microgeneration, which will mean that there will be £80 million in all for that kind of technology. The successful private Member’s Bill—it is now an Act—that was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) includes several measures to encourage microgeneration. There have also been big developments in planning that will make it easier for people to establish microgeneration in their homes. That all shows the Government’s support for such new energy technology.

There are significant parts of the country, especially rural areas, in which there is no mains gas. Until now, householders there have felt forced to rely on carbon sources such as oil and solid fuel to heat their homes. Is not the energy review an opportunity for us to make a reality of decentralised energy, as proposed by Greenpeace, in such rural areas by promoting, as a Government, district heating systems using power such as biomass, so that we can get renewable energy into significant parts of the country and give people a real choice for the first time about their sources of heat and power?

There is now an interesting debate, with much evidence, about the balance that we will need to strike as the century further unfolds, between the traditional system of power stations and the national grid—we will still need that, given the power that we require for our economy and householders—and newer kinds of technology, even though some of the ideas are quite old, such as combined heat and power, district heating—which some people are now calling distributive energy—microgeneration and the rest. We reflect on such issues as we approach the final stages of our energy review.

Is the Minister aware that a single giant electricity turbine is to be built in a very exposed position on the Mendip hills next to an area of outstanding natural beauty? The planning inspector who passed it ignored all planning considerations and gave priority to central Government targets for renewable energy. Does the Minister really think that vandalising the countryside in such a way, by putting up an expensive, subsidised and inefficient wind turbine, is anything more than a gesture that fails to measure up to the real problems of global warming?

I rather feel that this is the wrong Front Bench to respond to that question. I had understood that the right hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team, to quote one of my favourite poets, was now “Tangled up in blue”—and green.

This discussion shows the challenge that we face. We will need a great deal of investment in power in the future, whether that is wind farms, marine technology or more traditional power stations of one kind or another. Although local issues are absolutely crucial—which is why we have a planning process—hon. Members cannot keep saying no to things. We will need to start saying yes if we are to have the energy, especially the clean energy, that our economy demands and our people expect.

Despite the increased promotion of such energy, does the Minister agree that one of the things that is inhibiting take-up is confusion about green tariffs? Is it not about time that we had an accreditation or rating system so that consumers could know that their suppliers were providing exactly what they said they were, because uncertainty might lead them to conclude otherwise?

While there are major roles for the Government, industry and the rest to play on our future energy strategy, we also need individuals to become more aware of energy sources so that they can be the vanguard for the climate change agenda. More and more people are taking an interest in where their energy comes from—perhaps the development of smart metering is an idea that needs to be tested—and in microgeneration. We hope to encourage and enable that interest.

Will the Minister tell the House what measures the Government have taken to ensure that companies use more recycled material and what, if any, penalties they will impose if they do not comply?

Clearly, in terms of the environmental agenda, we all need to recycle more materials. Soon, the UK will implement what is inelegantly known as the WEEE directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment so that some of those materials can be recycled rather than going into landfill. There is the issue, too, of biomass and the use of new kinds of fuels in traditional power stations as well as smaller, perhaps mini, combined heat and power stations. The theme of using materials responsibly on our planet in waste policy—not wasted policy—and energy policy is particularly important.

The Minister for Trade and I are the living embodiment of microgeneration. Is not Britain far behind other countries in harnessing renewable power, and is there not a desperate need to spark a green energy revolution here? The Carbon Trust reports today that the Government’s renewables obligation is not working. Unless it is urgently revised, the UK will meet only half of its renewable energy targets by 2020. Will the Minister make a commitment to undertake a fundamental overhaul of the renewables obligation to help us take a quantum leap forward?

I will not go down the route of considering whether microgeneration contributes to hot or cooler air, as that is too easy a follow-up. To be serious, although we welcome late arrivals at the party to save the planet, it was our Government who initiated the renewables obligation and who will spend £500 million by 2008 on such technologies. Some of those late arrivals are talking—and I welcome that—but we have acted on the environmental agenda. The renewables obligation is not cheap stuff, as it will be worth up to £1 billion to the renewables industry by the end of the decade. It is a substantial investment, mainly paid for by customers, both industrial and domestic, and it is the major way in which we are developing renewable technologies.

Later today, we will publish the interim findings of our own review, which I hope the Minister will welcome. If we share common ground, that is good for the country and for investment. The fact of the matter, however, is that UK CO2 emissions have risen in five of the past seven years, and are higher than they were when his party came to office in 1997. The Government have not done enough to reduce emissions. Should we not have an enhanced long-term carbon trading framework to guarantee emissions reductions and to incentivise renewable energy technology, so that the country’s electricity supply can deliver green security both for us and for future generations?

I know that there is media, parliamentary and public interest and excitement about the outcome of the energy review—I had assumed that it was our review rather than the hon. Gentleman’s—which we welcome. For once, politicians do not exaggerate when they say that the environmental question of safeguarding our planet for the future is vital not only for our democracy, but for all other democracies. That is why the Government have set a mid-century target—it is the most ambitious target that any Government have set—to reduce 1990 levels of CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. That target is driving the energy review, but the hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient before we say exactly how we will tackle the problem. However, we are committed to doing so.