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Renewable Energy

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 29 February 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this important debate, because we are rapidly approaching 2016—a year that is demanding the Minister’s attention, given that security of energy supply, on which he is something of an expert, is increasing in importance.

I hope that this debate will feed into the wider discussion about the security of supply and be a useful contribution to the thinking on this issue. Given the three important issues that underpin that thinking—keeping the lights on, the diversity of energy sources and increasing the amount of renewable energy—I am pleased that hon. Members are here to listen to the debate.

The debate title is a testament to Britain’s growth in green technology and our status as a world leader in climate change awareness. However, as I will explain, for too long we have trailed behind countries such as Germany in the production of green energy, and we must take decisive action to secure support across the whole sector.

The reality is that attention within the renewables incentive debate has been centred on solar photovoltaic and wind energy. In the short term, river and wave energy may become a new focus. However, too little attention is paid to anaerobic digestion and other energy-from-waste technologies. The decoupling of the two subjects of waste management and energy production in the mind of the general public would be useful in overcoming hostility to the production of energy from waste.

I pay tribute to the excellent work done by my hon. Friend in this regard. Does she think that we need to expand on the excellent work of companies, such as ACM Environmental plc, which has converted waste into renewable energy in schools in Kent? Waste is converted on-site, rather than outside in other areas, and used to heat water, for example, at those schools.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly what I shall focus on, albeit in Hampshire rather than Kent.

To date, the main focus of attention on energy from waste appears to have been on large-scale industrial production of waste-sourced energy. Advanced gasification is a key part of securing green energy and decreasing landfill: it is a carbon-lean process involving the efficient, high-temperature conversion of waste to base-load electricity. After the August 2010 announcement that energy from waste can be sold to the national grid, there is now real discussion about how local authorities in particular can secure income sources by selling green energy. For example, Air Products, a leading provider of industrial gases and environmental systems, has been granted permission for a 49 MW advanced gasification plant in Teesside, the building of which will begin next year. That development will create 700 jobs, divert up to 350,000 tonnes of waste from landfill and produce enough predictable, clean power for 50,000 homes. Air Products is precisely the sort of provider of clean energy that we should be encouraging to meet our renewables obligations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital, in any incineration or gasification process, that the end result comes from harvesting recycled material along the way?

Indeed; my hon. Friend is correct.

I should like to explore a number of issues facing the development of the renewable energy from waste industry outside the large industrial-scale plants that I have mentioned. I want to show how the current incentives are working and how we could adjust them to accelerate awareness and the development of the industry, particularly harnessing the potential for small-scale production, as well as production on an industrial scale.

I have called this debate because incentivising small-scale production could develop valuable employment opportunities, help small businesses and local communities generate their own green energy, grow UK exports and, most importantly, assist the Government to achieve secure, diverse and green energy.

As a country, we continue to produce too much waste and we need to promote better uses for our unwanted produce. Producing more energy from waste is therefore a win-win policy, but it needs to be carefully explained to the general public, as the subject is easy to misunderstand, especially when anaerobic digestion is not well communicated.

Anaerobic digestion is the process whereby biowaste from plant and animal material is converted by micro-organisms in the absence of air into biogas, which can in turn be used to generate green electricity and heat. Anaerobic digestion can help reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions—two essential goals in our fight against climate change. Almost any biowaste can be processed in that way, including food waste, energy-producing crops and crop residues, slurry and manure. The process can accept waste from our homes, supermarkets, industry and farms, ensuring that significantly less is sent to landfill.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall. Does she feel that, to incentivise the use of waste material from farms, for example, the Government need to consider financial incentives, because although every farmer would wish to do that, financial restrictions might prevent them from doing so?

Not just financial incentives are needed; deregulation and, in some instances, making the planning process a lot simpler for agricultural enterprises are needed, too.

The National Farmers Union is a vociferous advocate of anaerobic digestion and argues that its use on farms reduces emissions of methane from manures and agricultural residues, improves air quality through the control and reduction of odours, such as ammonia, and leads to benefits to water quality from the improved management of nitrogen and other nutrients present in manures.

Another major advantage of anaerobic digestion as a renewable energy source is that the material left over at the end of the process—an odour-free digestate, rich in nutrients—can be used effectively as fertiliser. This could, and really should, become the standard fertiliser on the market. However, many domestic and business users do not understand the benefits derived from buying recycled products. A new petrochemical-derived fertiliser can cost a farmer between £200 and £400 per tonne, but the by-product from a micro-anaerobic digestion site is more likely to be of a consistent chemical and nutritional specification. Currently, the anaerobic digestion industry is struggling to sell recycled fertiliser, produced to resource action programme standards, at £5 to £6 per tonne. I would be grateful to the Minister if he expanded on how we can best explain the benefits of, and incentivise the consumption of, recycled fertiliser in farming and domestic gardening.

Many sites in the UK are producing biowaste. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK produces approximately 7 million tonnes of food waste and about 90 million tonnes of animal slurry and manure per year. With 23.6 million households and 41,000 farms, it is clear that the potential for green energy production is enormous.

The UK currently has 214 anaerobic digestion plants installed, of which 146 are sewage treatment sites. In comparison, Germany has approximately 9,000 farm-based sites and China has a simple, rural, domestic-scale approach to anaerobic digestion, which benefits millions of people. It is clear that the UK has far greater potential to make use of this technology. In light of Germany’s achievements in this field, the NFU’s commendable vision for 1,000 on-farm anaerobic digestion plants by 2020 seems quite modest.

There are almost unlimited possibilities for anaerobic digestion on a local scale. In my constituency, the patented technology of an innovative micro-anaerobic digestion technology provider, SEaB Energy, based on Southampton university science park, has produced a system that creates and generates power from waste inside a shipping container. Using that technology, the company has proved, both at the university science park and, locally, at Sparsholt agricultural college, that it is possible to implement micro-anaerobic digestion solutions. A number of other food producers, golf clubs and hotels are also exploring the benefits of using such technology across the UK.

All organisations create waste. SeAB is leading the way, through anaerobic digestion, in reducing our dependence on landfill by converting waste into valuable energy. I should welcome the Minister’s visiting and meeting the people who have developed this world-leading technology, so that he can see green energy in production.

There are several different options for anaerobic digestion, depending on the amount of energy required, and each has its own challenges. A centralised anaerobic digestion facility requires large quantities of biowaste to be collected and driven across the country, inevitably generating a strain on the existing road network and increasing the carbon footprint of the technology. It is also capital intensive, and the site-planning process can be lengthy.

By comparison, decentralised sites are arguably simpler to operate, quicker to build and easier to install and manage. Road haulage is largely eliminated and the waste producer benefits directly from using its own waste to generate its own green energy. I would be grateful to the Minister if he commented on how we can incentivise the many small waste producers, such as farmers, food growers, food packers, hotels, hospitals, schools or prisons—the list is almost endless—so that they can benefit from green energy throughout the country. In short, anaerobic digestion reduces the need for landfill, with the exciting possibility of creating sustainable communities with a consistent waste fuel power source.

The NFU is keen to ensure that smaller, farm-based biogas proposals are not disadvantaged by being labelled waste management. If we are to see the necessary growth in on-farm anaerobic digestion plants, it is important that they are subject to simple permits. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s comments on that and on what work can be done with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that light-touch regulation is encouraged among local planning authorities.

It is important to note that there is tremendous potential for the upgrading of biogas to biomethane for motor vehicle use as a tradeable low-carbon fuel or for direct injection into the natural gas distribution network. I understand that equipment for biogas upgrading is available from Germany, where such pipeline injection is growing, and in our constant search for fresh sources of car fuel, that is an extremely encouraging possibility.

Other sources of renewable fuel can be found in the waste stream, such as the conversion of used cooking oil into biodiesel, which is entirely sustainable and derived from a waste product. That would involve recycling almost 100 million litres of waste cooking oil each year, while helping the Government to exceed their greenhouse gas emission targets in transport by 8%. However, as highlighted by the recent report on environmental taxes by the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, the removal this March of the 20p per litre duty differential on such fuel will make it prohibitively expensive and high-blend users will have no choice but to return to fossil fuels. That will have a disastrous impact on the UK biodiesel industry, resulting in the loss of green jobs, as well as discouraging further investment in the development of new technologies in the energy-from-waste sector.

Does my hon. Friend agree that such fuels should be taxed on their energy content and not on their volume? The tax on volume is one of the problems for the industry in getting going.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and there is much to credit in his argument.

I strongly urge the Minister to continue to speak to his colleagues in the Treasury, because I fear that, without continued support, we will jeopardise the significant steps that have already been taken. The energy-from-waste sector is full of innovative and in many cases ingenious ideas. I am conscious that we need a wide variety of energy generation methods to meet demand. No one form of green energy provides the whole answer, and we need a range of solutions, both large and small.

In summary, there are a number of questions for the Minister. First, does he agree that there is real untapped potential for small-scale energy-from-waste production to contribute to the secure, diverse and green supply of energy? If so, can he outline clearly how the potential for small-scale production can be encouraged and incentivised? Secondly, what changes to legislation and regulation—in particular to that coming from the Treasury—would be a prerequisite for the vision of small-scale energy from waste production to become a reality? Thirdly, what can be done to rebalance the debate, to support the broader market development of sustainable fuels from waste, including micro-anaerobic digestion and to ensure that the necessary incentives are in place for the sector to thrive? I thank the Minister for taking the time to address the issues, and I look forward to hearing his response.

It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and congratulate her on securing the debate. She has given us an excellent summary of the benefits that such technologies can bring and a clear understanding of where she sees the barrier to their deployment. I want to go through where we see the opportunities and to say what we are doing to remove the barriers.

My hon. Friend has not been alone in the debate. I welcome the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), for Redcar (Ian Swales) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), which all showed the understanding, depth of knowledge and interest in the issue that is present throughout the country.

I have already had the chance for a brief conversation with some of the people involved in SEaB. I am delighted with the opportunity to visit in the future and to see on the ground the work that they are doing in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, but it is also important to put our discussion in the context of the wider energy debate, and that is how I wish to begin. She is absolutely right, however, to highlight the untapped potential of the sector, and part of our objective as a Government is to realise that potential in the most effective way that we can.

As my hon. Friend outlined, renewable energy has a vital role in our low-carbon future. By the end of the decade we must cut our carbon emissions by 35% on 1990 levels, and by the end of the next decade they must have halved. We also have the EU renewable energy target, which means that we must generate 15% of our energy from renewables by 2020. In order to meet that target, about 30% of our electricity and 12% of our heat will need to come from renewable sources. That is not only about meeting targets, because it is also the right thing to do, and we need to reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels. Home-grown renewable energy can enhance our energy security and give us a greater degree of energy independence, helping to shield us from global fossil fuel price fluctuation, which seems to be in only one direction at the moment, as we see high prices for oil and gas. She also touched on the immense economic potential in renewable energy, and the sector could provide opportunities for up to 500,000 jobs.

In the Department of Energy and Climate Change, we have been working with the renewables sector to understand more effectively how much renewable energy can be deployed by 2020, and to identify the current constraints that must be addressed.

The Minister knows that 6.7 million tonnes of food waste are being discarded each year. Are there any plans to ban completely food waste going into landfill? If so, what is the time frame?

My hon. Friend is aware that what we have been seeking to do is to give local authorities more say in how they should manage their affairs, rather than a top-down, Government approach. For many of us with landfill or land-raise issues in our constituencies, it seems absurd to put food waste into such facilities. At the end of the day, however, we want the local authorities to be the driving force in resolving such issues. In his own case, Kent is a beacon authority in looking at how to manage its waste issues.

I thank the Minister for investing DECC money into an anaerobic digestion facility at the Centre for Process Innovation in my constituency. He is referring a lot to renewable energy, but does the way in which waste is treated under all our policies throughout the various Departments satisfy the renewable energy criteria and meet the simplicity requirements mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. For the first time, we are now moving towards a clear, cross-Department strategy on waste. That means looking at the hierarchy and at where we reuse and recycle, but also seeing that as part of that process there is residual waste, and getting an energy source from that is better than putting it into landfill and land raise.

I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but then must get on to the comments of my hon. Friend.

I recognise the Minister’s passion for the subject. He mentioned a Government strategy: will that include the regions such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well, so that it is uniform and UK-wide?

We seek to work with the devolved Administrations but, clearly, different rules apply in different parts of the United Kingdom, where the different Governments have responsibility for such matters. If we have central control in Westminster over different aspects, we have the influence, but we obviously wish to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the strategy is as holistic as possible. The more that we can remove the barriers and have an integrated and holistic approach, the more effectively we can attract investment into the sector.

We have identified eight technologies that we believe will bring us closest to delivering those 2020 targets cost-effectively and sustainably. They are onshore and offshore wind, marine energy, biomass heat and electricity, ground source and air source heat pumps, and renewable transport. Biomass heat and power includes energy from waste technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, waste combustion and the new, advanced technologies of gasification and pyrolysis. We believe that those eight technologies collectively are capable of delivering more than 90% of the renewable energy we need for 2020.

Instead of just having targets, we are determined to show how we meet our objectives. It is easy for Governments to have targets, but then to leave them to a future Government to explain why they were not met. We are determined to put in place a clear road map that shows what barriers exist, and how we intend to overcome them so that we can be more effectively held to account in the process.

Last year, we published the UK renewable energy road map, which shows where we are now on those eight technologies, how deployment may develop up to 2020, and the actions that will need to be taken now to overcome the barriers to deployment. Although our evidence shows that we can meet our target of 15% renewables by 2020, we are clear that we need a rapid increase in deployment. At the end of 2010, renewable energy accounted for 3.3% of UK energy consumption, so there is a significant way to go.

Renewable electricity and heat technologies are generally more expensive than fossil fuel generation, and require subsidy to boost deployment, just as every previous new energy technology has done. Support is available under the renewables obligation, the feed-in tariffs scheme, the renewable heat incentive, and the renewable transport fuel obligation.

The Minister talks about eight key technologies and delivering them affordably. I entirely agree with that, but will the road map be flexible enough to change if technologies advance with time? If one technology becomes more prevalent in delivering the green energy that we need, will changes be made to cover that ?

My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. We have set out in the road map the high, medium and low trajectories for each technology. A key element that may change is the cost of delivering them. For example, we are working with the industry on offshore wind to bring down the cost by 40% over this decade, and that is critical to the extent of its deployment. If the costs cannot be brought down, we must make choices on behalf of consumers to show that we are trying to deliver those renewable objectives at the least cost to consumers. Flexibility is an integral part of that process.

Despite the undoubted benefits of renewable energy, it must be cost-effective and affordable compared with low carbon alternatives. I acknowledge the valid point that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North made in her introduction that the renewables industry and investors need stability to plan ahead. Uncertainty is often the greatest enemy of investment. I also appreciate that recent changes, particularly to the support for solar photovoltaic installations under the feed-in tariffs scheme, may have temporarily affected industry and investor confidence, although we are now seeing strong growth again in the number of PV installations. We are committed to delivering our goals in a way that minimises the impact on consumers’ bills.

In our measures to reform the support mechanisms, we have three objectives. They are designed to make the budget go as far as possible, and to maximise the number of people who can benefit from schemes. They will provide greater certainty for the industries concerned on the rates of return that they will receive up to 2020, and they will ensure value for money to consumers who pay the bills.

I understand that the scheduled banding review for the renewables obligation has caused some concern. Banding reviews ensure that as market conditions and innovation within sectors change and evolve—this point is directly in response to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—developers continue to receive the appropriate level of support necessary to maintain investment. We have studied how much subsidy different technologies need. When new technologies need help to reach the market—for example, wave and tidal energy, which are emerging technologies—we have proposed increasing support, but when market costs have come down or will come down, we propose reducing the subsidy accordingly. That proposal will result in a lower impact on consumers’ bills than keeping the existing bandings, and will drive a higher level of deployment. Setting the bands for the period to 2017 also provides the industry with the certainty needed to make investment decisions now. The public consultation on the banding review has closed, and we will issue the Government’s response in the spring, confirming the banding levels moving forward. Legislation setting the new bands in law will come into effect on 1 April 2013.

I have mentioned the eight existing technologies that we have focused on in the UK’s renewable energy road map. Anaerobic digestion has, without doubt, an important role to play in both biomass heat and electricity generation. The United Kingdom produces about 100 million tonnes of food waste, manure, slurry and sewage sludge that is suitable for treatment by anaerobic digestion. When the coalition was formed in 2010, we stated our commitment to developing energy from waste through anaerobic digestion. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and other hon. Members who have spoken that we remain absolutely committed to delivering on that commitment.

Last June, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change jointly published the anaerobic digestion strategy and action plan. It sets out our vision for anaerobic digestion, with an estimate of potential that could reach between 3 and 5 TW hours of electricity by 2020. Currently, there are only 172 MW of installed anaerobic digestion capacity in the UK, processing more than 5 million tonnes of material, and generating more than 1 TW hours per year. More is coming through the system. Just last week, Tamar Energy announced plans to develop 40 AD plants in the UK, with an installed capacity of 100 MW. In addition, we know of more than 100 plants that have received planning permission, and a further 80 that are going through the process.

It is clear that momentum is building and support for the technology is growing, but we recognise that significant barriers must be overcome for the sector to reach its potential. The anaerobic digestion strategy and action plan also sets out a joint Government and industry programme of work with 56 actions to tackle the key barriers to deployment. You will be grateful, Mr Owen, that I will not go through all those this morning. However, work is progressing on a range of actions, including disseminating information, particularly on regulatory controls; providing guidance on the costs and benefits of AD and best practice projects; developing skills and training for AD operators; building markets for digestate; and understanding the barriers to the use of biomethane as a transport fuel. Those pick up on most of the issues that my hon. Friend raised. An annual progress report on how we are moving to meet those actions will be published in the summer.

Our commitment to anaerobic digestion is also clear through the financial incentives that we offer. Anaerobic digestion is the only biomass technology supported under the feed-in tariffs scheme, which is aimed at smaller scale projects under 5 MW. Larger-scale projects are eligible for support under the renewables obligation. The renewable heat incentive supports biogas combustion below 200 kW thermal and the injection of biomethane at all scales into the national gas grid.

In addition, a £10 million loan fund is available from the Waste and Resources Action Programme to support the development of new AD capacity to divert 300,000 tonnes of food waste from landfill. WRAP is jointly administering, with the Technology Strategy Board, a fund designed to drive innovation in AD systems to bring down the cost of capital. Waste, including anaerobic digestion, is one sector likely to be eligible for initial intervention by the Green investment bank. In the meantime, a new team within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—UK Green Investments—has £100 million to invest in smaller green infrastructure projects, including AD, on a fully commercial basis. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend that significant support is coming through, and that we have identified the issues.

I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for smaller, more local plants. That is backed up by the study by consultants for the renewables obligation banding review that suggested that anaerobic digestion potential lies in stations with less than 5 MW of capacity. That ties in with our commitment to localism, which was raised during the debate, and is why, as part of the rural economy growth review, the Government have announced that they will promote the development of community-scale renewable energy projects in England through the establishment of a £15 million rural community renewable energy fund.

I also share my hon. Friend’s concern about the difficulties that anaerobic digestion operators experience in trying to sell their digestate as fertiliser. It is a valuable biofertiliser that can be used as a renewable source of critical plant nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Although the UK has long-term experience with digested sewage, digestate derived from food wastes and other inputs is often regarded as novel by the market. There is a reluctance to accept it until evidence of its quality and benefits can be provided. The anaerobic digestion action plan contains a number of actions to build confidence, and I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to work with WRAP to ensure that the identified challenges are understood.

Sitting suspended.