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Electricity Demand/Capacity

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

4. What assessment he has made of the balance of generating capacity and likely demand for electricity in the UK in the next 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (325607)

We are confident that we will meet demand for electricity over the next decade. About 18 GW of plant is due to close by 2020, but already 20 GW is either under construction or has planning consent. The most recent analysis in the “Energy Markets Outlook” in December 2009 suggested that the electricity capacity margin remains above 10 per cent. for the whole of the next decade.

I hope that the Secretary of State’s optimism is well founded. Does he understand that when the obituary of this Government is written in a few weeks’ time, one of the most critical passages will relate to the 2003 energy White Paper and those seven fateful words—

“We do not…propose…new nuclear build”—

words that undermined our nation’s nuclear skills base and which cost us vital years in the fight to avoid severe power shortages in the next decade. I genuinely fear that there will be such shortages.

The interesting thing is that three or four years later the Leader of the Opposition was saying that nuclear should remain a last resort. It is this Government who led the debate on nuclear power. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that we need all forms of low-carbon energy, including renewable power. He brought before the House an exclusion zone proposal on wind farms—a proposal with which I disagree. Let us have low-carbon energy; that is what we are driving towards with planning reform, nuclear power and renewables.

In the past two weeks we have seen the true cost of trying to run the world on cheap coal, with 150 Chinese miners trapped underground in a country where 6,000 miners die every year, and 25 miners killed in West Virginia—employees of a serial violator of mine legislation. Will the Government take on the role of leading the international debate on the ethics of putting miners’ safety before profits?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I have discussed with him. It is right that we take up these issues through organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and other international bodies and I have said to him that we will do so.

At the end of term, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his team for their energy and commitment. Do they realise that they would be wise as well as energetic if they gave up the new deception they now share with the Conservative party that nuclear power is what we need to have a safe, clean and secure energy future? Why is his party, like the Tories, willing to put the health, wealth and personal security of the people of Britain at such great risk in the future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question, but I profoundly disagree with the second part of his question. When we look at the scale of the task in terms of low-carbon energy, we have very ambitious targets on renewables—approximately a sixfold increase in renewable energy by 2020—and nuclear must be part of the energy mix. We need to move on all fronts—nuclear, renewables and clean coal—because the scale of the challenge of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 is so enormous that we need every form of low-carbon energy.

Are we looking at the Thames estuary, eastwards of Thurrock, for tidal power generation comparable to the wonderful innovative scheme in operation at Strangford lough in Northern Ireland? Would the Minister care to join me in my retirement at Strangford lough, where I can show him this wonderful technology?

Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. The House will sorely miss his character and the passionate way in which he took forward a whole range of issues.

We need tidal power in this country, and it can play an important role. I look forward to joining him after the election—I hope in my current post—with the newly elected Labour Member of Parliament for his constituency, to see what tidal power can do.

Whatever the future holds for us all, we have much enjoyed our exchanges with the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends across the Dispatch Box, but it is not over yet. Eight weeks ago, the energy regulator said:

“In 2017 we get to the really sweaty-palm moment in terms of possible shortages…It is the scale of collapse…that is profound and worrying.”

Is the energy regulator another of those who have been deceived?

Let me start by saying that I have also enjoyed our exchanges. The hon. Gentleman shadowed me when I was the Minister for the Third Sector and since then when I have been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change. I look forward to him continuing to shadow me in his present post after the general election.

The energy regulator put forward a series of projections based on modelling in the Project Discovery document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The difference is that what I read out are actual plans that are being taken forward for 20 GW of new power. I am confident about security of supply, but the big question for Britain is whether it should be low-carbon or high-carbon security of supply. That is why it is so important that we move forward on nuclear and indeed renewables, on which the Conservative party has a bad record locally.

Of course, it is not just the regulator. The Government’s own chief scientist told the BBC that there is a worry that in 2016 there might not be enough electricity. In 13 years, we have had 11 Energy Ministers, from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) to Lord Truscott, eight Secretaries of State in charge of energy from the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) to Lord Mandelson, five energy White Papers, and more than 100 consultations. Is it despite all that or because of it that the Government officially expect blackouts during the decade ahead?

I feel like I am hearing the hon. Gentleman’s greatest hits this morning, but they are not that great. We are not predicting what he said would happen in 2017, and he knows from the “Energy Markets Outlook” that that is not so. The truth is that we have moved forward in a whole range of areas to provide the power that the country will need in the coming decade, but I return to the point that the big question is whether we take the difficult decisions on, for example, planning. We finally have a planning system in this country that business supports, but the Conservative party says that if it got into government it would overturn it on day one. That will not help the low-carbon transition in this country.