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Topical Questions

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011

In addition to my normal departmental responsibilities, we have commissioned a report from the chief nuclear inspector on the implications of the situation in Japan and the lessons to be learned. We have launched the renewable heat incentive to provide long-term guaranteed financial support for renewable heat technologies, and the Energy Bill has now been introduced to the Commons from the Lords.

Can the Secretary of State clarify whether the carbon floor price that starts in 2013 will be £16 per tonne, as the Chancellor suggested yesterday, or £4.94 per tonne plus the European Union emissions trading scheme amount, as the accompanying Treasury document sets out? If the latter is the case, does the Secretary of State think that it will produce a considerable differential between electricity imported through interconnectors and electricity produced domestically, and what are his plans to deal with that?

The Chancellor is absolutely correct, because there is a carbon floor price, and it is designed to ensure that the price, which is composed of the emissions trading scheme and the carbon floor price, is as applied to electricity generators. He is very well aware, I know, of the potential implications of the carbon floor price for interconnection, and that has been taken into account in the Treasury’s decision.

T2. The Government’s report, “The Plan for Growth”, published yesterday, states that the Secretary of State for Energy “will also place significant weight on the need to support the economic recovery in related”—planning—“consent regimes”. Can he confirm that the Government will now consider the benefits to the local economy of building a new power station at Dungeness as part of their consultation on new nuclear sites? (48564)

I am aware that my hon. Friend has an important constituency interest in this. He has been a great champion of the interests of his constituents in securing another new plant at Dungeness. I am reluctant completely to redraw the national planning statements, which have already been going out for consultation, but the interests of the national economy certainly need to be taken into account, and they will be.

T7. Yesterday’s announcement from the Chancellor about a supplementary charge for oil and gas producers places a question mark over investment decisions and the possible supply chain, and it might increase still further our reliance on imported oil and gas. Teesside is a major hub for offshore engineering, with many jobs reliant on it. Will the Minister guarantee that no jobs will be lost in Teesside, which is an unemployment hotspot, as a result of the Chancellor’s decision? (48569)

The Chancellor is keen to see new jobs in Teesside; that is precisely why he announced that one of the enterprise zones will be coming to the Tees valley. We have a great commitment to new jobs in Teesside and, indeed, the whole of the north-east. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, I anticipate, because of the rise in the oil price, that we will have a lot of resources available to operators in the North sea, and I would be surprised if there was not a continued increase in investment.

T3. In the past, park home residents in Winchester and Chandler’s Ford have expressed to me their grave disappointment that they have not been eligible for the Warm Front scheme. Like the omission of a specific park home option on the 2011 census form, this rather feeds the view of many park home residents that they are treated differently. Does the green deal offer them cause for hope, or at least some excitement? (48565)

Yes, it certainly does. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that in relation to funding energy efficiency improvements, the green deal should apply to park homes if they have an appropriate energy meter and qualify under the normal rules. Later this year, we will consult on the size and scope of the energy obligation, including the types of property and householders qualifying for support, and that will include park homes.

T8. With around 30,000 people dying of cold each winter, the introduction of smart meters and ever-increasing fuel bills, will the Minister meet me to discuss the promotion of cold meters, which sound the alarm when the temperature dips below safe levels? That is particularly important for elderly people. (48571)

Yes, I will certainly meet the hon. Lady to discuss that. It is not an idea that I have heard a lot about, but it sounds very sensible. The great thing about the green deal is that we want to encourage the introduction of new technologies that will help the consumer.

T4. Enfield has a welcome commitment to increase the supply of decentralised renewable and low-carbon energy. May I invite the Minister to come to Enfield to see for himself these innovative plans, particularly on capturing energy from waste, and to see that when it comes to supporting renewables, instead of chasing mega-business deals, small and local is often beautiful? (48566)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; small and beautiful is our vision for a much more decentralised energy economy. I would be delighted to come to Enfield to see the real strides that people are making to achieve that.

Earlier we heard the Secretary of State boasting about his experience of financial markets. The rules of the Office for National Statistics about how to classify things are absolutely clear. It is more than 20 years since private finance initiatives were set up, so why has he been so incompetent in the way that he has structured the green investment bank, which has been classified in the public sector, giving the Treasury the excuse to delay its borrowing powers for four years?

The hon. Lady, as a former Treasury official, knows about this from the inside. I can assure her, however, that I was not boasting of my expertise in financial markets, but drawing attention to the fact that, although I had been in those markets for a considerable period, I was completely incapable of forecasting how they would react in these particular circumstances. I do not believe that we are going to have the problems with the green investment bank that she anticipates. It is clear that this is a historic moment. For the first time, the Treasury and the whole Government are agreeing to set up an institution that will be able to borrow, in its own right, just before the point at which it will need those resources. It will be able to borrow because the offshore wind investments will be there in the second half of the decade. As an ex-Treasury official, the hon. Lady well knows that given all those years in the 1930s when we became the only industrialised country not to set up a public development bank, this is an extraordinary achievement, and I hope that Labour Members recognise it as such.

T5. Does the Minister agree that offshore wind farms, such as the one that has been proposed for off the coast of Brighton, will not only help energy supplies and counter the effects of climate change, but boost the local economy? (48567)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Wind farms bring significant job opportunities. I have been to the port at Newhaven to talk about those opportunities. This will be an important part of our energy infrastructure going forward. Britain already leads the world in the deployment of offshore wind, and we intend to build on that and to secure supply chain jobs in Britain.

My question relates to the renewable heat initiative. I am sure that the Minister remembers the productive meeting that we had with Geothermal International, a small company in Coventry. Although the outcome on the commercial applications side has been very good, the continuing delays on the domestic side are holding back the industry. It is a very important industry in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector, which is being targeted by the Government. If he could hurry up with that, we would be able to make more progress.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the domestic launch is not being delayed at all. The only difference is that at the same time as we launch the industrial scheme this year, we will launch the renewable heat premium. The premium will reach more consumers in the first year than the ordinary tariff under the original model was anticipated to reach. I assure him that the premium will add to the scheme, not detract from it.

T6. Recent announcements, including that on the premium, have been welcomed warmly by Worcester, Bosch Group, which employs more than 1,000 people in Worcester. It wants the domestic roll-out of the scheme to succeed, and feels that the key to that is winning over installers. Will the Minister update the House on his plans to engage with installers, and will he visit the training centre with me, where more than 10,000 installers are trained each year? (48568)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that installation is key, particularly for such new, innovative technologies, which are not all as tried and tested as we would like. We are working closely with installers. My officials meet regularly with firms and liaise closely with the industry. I would be delighted to accept my hon. Friend’s invitation and see it for myself.

I have a range of energy-intensive industries in my constituency, including steel, glass, paper and the entire clay pipe manufacturing capacity of the UK. How can south Yorkshire develop its manufacturing capacity and encourage economic growth if the international competitiveness of its current engineering capacity is being undermined by the Government’s energy market reforms?

In answer to a previous question, I made it clear that we are listening to energy-intensive industries carefully, and using all the means that we can to ensure that we can offset any demonstrable effects. We have had those discussions in the context not just of the carbon floor price, but of the European Union’s emissions trading scheme. We will continue to watch this situation carefully because I want to see many new jobs in south Yorkshire and everywhere else in the country.

T9. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that in the long term, the costs of unrestrained climate change will exceed the costs of doing something about it. Surely he is aware that the Stern report states that over the whole of this century, the costs of the programme that he is advocating exceed any benefits from reducing climate change, so that—[Interruption.] That is in the Stern report on page 167. Surely the Minister is aware of it. (48572)

Let me answer my right hon. Friend. This is not just a question of assessing the costs to the world in the long run if unrestrained climate change is allowed to proceed; it is also a question of energy security in this country and of the costs of the alternative. Given that the oil markets have gone from $60 a barrel two years ago to $80 a barrel last year, and are now at $115 a barrel, my right hon. Friend should be well aware that relying on fossil fuel markets could be extremely damaging to our economic health.

The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that the carbon intensity of electricity should be reduced from today’s 500 grams of CO2 per kWh to the highly challenging figure of 50 grams of CO2 per kWh by 2030. The Energy and Climate Change Committee suggests that the target should be about 100 grams of CO2 per kWh. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State explain how difficult it would be to achieve the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change?

We are both keen to answer that because it is such a good question and we have such a good answer. We see a whole range of opportunities, and carbon capture and storage will be a fundamental one. It brings a real opportunity for coal to be part of the mix. We can look at the number of bids that we have had in—nine bids have come to Britain for the European scheme, out of 22 across the whole of Europe. Seven of those are for coal and two are for gas, which shows that there is a real opportunity for clean coal in the UK mix, which will be a world-beating achievement.

Given the Government’s commitment to both a low-carbon future and localism, do Ministers agree that everything should be done to encourage local carbon budgets, which can clearly play an important part in achieving our national targets?

I agree that local carbon budgets are important, which is one reason why we have continued with the pilots of databases that allow local authorities to know what their carbon emissions are and to continue to set targets. I do not want to impose those on local authorities, because they are a matter for localism, but it is right that they should have the information on which they can base informed decisions.

The vital ring-fenced support for the marine renewables deployment fund ends next week. With the green investment bank some way off, no news on the low-carbon innovation fund until the summer and nothing in the Budget, will the Minister clarify what backing the industry can expect, or does he prefer the jobs to go abroad?

Absolutely not. We have gripped this agenda, as the enthusiasm of the new marine programme energy board made clear when we met in Exeter. I can tell the hon. Lady that we will announce the allocation from the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s budget for supporting low-carbon technologies very shortly, and the results of the review of the renewables obligation that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), brought forward will also be announced in due course.

On the idea that there is no public subsidy for new nuclear, the Government will of course effectively have to underwrite new nuclear in respect of events that we all hope will never happen. How is the carbon floor price not effectively a back-door subsidy for new nuclear?

My hon. Friend should be aware that we are not providing underwriting funds or soft loans. In the United States, for example, the Obama Administration are proceeding with $35 billion of soft loans for the nuclear industry, but we have explicitly said that new nuclear will be built here without public subsidy. We have also said that, as Lord Stern pointed out, climate change is the greatest market failure of all time. We have to offset that market failure with a clear signal to the markets, whether through the emissions trading scheme or the carbon floor price, that low carbon is here to stay and we must accelerate it.

Yesterday, in response to the Budget, Karl-Ulrich Köhler, chief executive officer of Tata Steel Europe, said that

“the introduction of the Carbon Floor Price…represents a potentially severe blow to the sustainability of UK steelmaking.”

Does the Secretary of State believe that the CFP announced yesterday is the type of state intervention that is good for British steel making on Teesside?

I have said in answer to previous questions that we will engage in ongoing discussions with energy-intensive users. We want them to use low-carbon electricity, and a number of them are doing that, including by moving to biomass. There are alternatives, and there is flexibility in, for example, the EU emissions trading scheme, which allows us to help.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the damage done to business confidence by his extraordinary U-turn on support for mid-sized solar installations, and of the 14,000 new jobs that were in the UK solar industry precisely because of that? How many of those jobs will be lost as a result of that extraordinary decision?

The hon. Lady has to be aware that sadly, in the world in which Ministers operate, we have to assess the alternatives. Had we not acted, the alternative would have been a much greater boom and bust and a much greater destruction of confidence. I am absolutely unhesitating in assuring her that solar industry confidence is substantially higher than it would have been if we had taken the action that she suggests.