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Strangford Lough: Tidal Wave Energy

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

It is indeed a pleasure to speak in the Adjournment debate—only this time not as one who asks for an intervention, but as one initiating the debate.

For once, I can give way—to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) first.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important Adjournment debate. As he travels from his home to his office along the Portaferry Road, he will know of not only the picturesque beauty of Strangford lough, but the energy there that could and should be captured. But is my hon. Friend prepared for the tidal wave and potential tsunami of interventions that may come in this debate?

I like to think I am well prepared for most things. Whenever those interventions come, I will be happy to give way.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned intervening, and it is a great pleasure to intervene on him. Does he not intend to intervene on the Minister at the end?

I will allow the hon. Gentleman to carry on, but I just wanted to let him know, as a good friend to me and to many in this House, that although I have only seen the title of this debate—I have yet to hear the content—he has my full and absolute support for whatever he wishes to have.

That is the sort of support I am always looking for. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and the other Members for their interventions too.

I am pleased to introduce a matter that is of some interest to myself and, I suspect, should also be of some interest to those across the west coast of Scotland, England and Wales. For us in Northern Ireland, and specifically the constituency of Strangford, to have the opportunity to be involved in tidal energy would be a key development.

I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. I know that the Minister will be aware of the energy crisis we are in, but I will give a bit of background. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is always very kind; his response was very helpful in the debate we had in Westminster Hall, and this debate carries on from that. I am aware that some of the current crisis is due to the war in Ukraine, and we all understand the difficulties that has caused to supply and price. I just make these comments to introduce the debate on tidal wave energy for Strangford lough.

I know that every representative in this House will share my experience of people ringing up for referrals to food banks and, increasingly, people asking for help with gas and electricity. While I welcome the help for households, which is months behind in delivery in Northern Ireland, by the way, I have real concern that every energy payment arriving in people’s accounts may be used for other things.

To give a bit of background to why this debate is important, someone in Northern Ireland who pays for their gas can top up by only £49 at a time, which means 12 individual trips plus booking a taxi. Added together, that underlines why Parliament is debating tidal energy in Strangford tonight and why we must make the long-term consideration of our secure energy supply a priority.

My office was fortunate to have a wonderful conversation with Professor Roger Falconer, emeritus professor of water and environmental engineering at the Hydro-environmental Research Centre of Cardiff University. He helped us by clearly putting forward some relevant information, so the conversation was illuminating and incredibly informative. He powerfully underlined that, if we invest long term in our facilities, our energy security can be home-sourced through the wonderful natural resources that God has blessed this country with. I have long believed that, so it is nothing new—I have always supported the idea of tidal wave energy in Strangford lough—yet the professor succinctly showed that the potential that I wish to highlight in Strangford and the Province applies UK-wide, including on the west coast of Scotland, England and Wales. It can be a clean energy solution, which we all know is the end goal.

As I have said in the House previously, we can depend on the sun rising and setting, so we can depend on the tides. The tidal potential of Strangford lough is incredible, as it is on the entire west coast of the United Kingdom. I am pleased to see that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is present, because he always brings knowledge to such debates. I am sure that he will intervene at some stage and give us his thoughts on the way forward for the islands.

Go on then—the hon. Gentleman knows that we have a shared interest. Does he agree that, essentially, the exciting prospect of tidal power is that it offers an opportunity to get a baseload of renewable energy, not just because of the predictability, but because when it ebbs somewhere, it flows somewhere else? It does not suffer from the intermittency of other renewables.

How wise and true those words are. The right hon. Gentleman sets the scene for what I will say next.

Wind turbines are popping up as a quick fix. Undoubtedly, when the wind is blowing, that is tremendous, but we cannot tell in advance when the wind will be blowing. We can pinpoint the tide for decades in advance, however, as the right hon. Gentleman said. The ebb and flow of the tides at the mouth of Strangford lough is stronger than many on the west coast of Scotland and certainly the best in the Province. Professor Falconer highlighted in a lovely way that the highest energy use in Wales comes at half time when the England and Wales rugby teams meet. His view is that the peak tidal time could determine match times to subsequently make use of energy usage planning, which is imperative.

For that to happen, however, the Government must decide to invest, and that is my call today. They should invest not simply in Strangford’s potential, to which the title of the debate refers, but in the UK-wide tidal potential to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The ability to plan decades in the future is attractive in any policy, which is why I once again draw the Minister’s attention to the need for long-term investment in a clean, sustainable energy source that is not affected by goings on around the world.

There are two types of tidal energy: tidal turbines or streams, and tidal ranges. With a current of more than 2.5 metres per second, Strangford lough has obvious potential for a tidal stream, which is why there was a trial there with the 2008 SeaGen project. I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly then, as were some of my hon. Friends, and a member of Ards Borough Council. It was an incredibly successful pilot scheme, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Energy prices have risen, however, which makes the scheme more possible and acceptable.

The trial was commissioned by Marine Current Turbines, a subsidiary of British tidal energy company Siemens. It was an investment at that time of some £12 million. The project involved the installation of two 600 kW turbines producing 150 kW of electricity to the grid in July 2008. SeaGen generated electricity at its maximum capacity for the first time in December 2008. Without doubt, the scheme has produced 5 GWh of tidal power since its commissioning, which is equivalent to the annual power consumption of 1,500 households.

I am given to believe that the mouth of Strangford lough, with the ebb and flow of the tides in the narrows, could reliably hold up to 20 turbines. I am not saying that it should hold 20 turbines, but it could do so because of the flow of the tides there. That is enough energy for half the households in Northern Ireland to be cleanly supplied, and it is worth looking at. Indeed, I believe it cannot be ignored as the potential is truly enormous.

We know that wind turbines are easy to install once planning is passed, but they provide very moderate energy, and the density of water means that tidal energy is infinitely preferable. In my opinion, the tide in Strangford lough must take its place in the long-term provision of energy, and for this it needs investment. We need money put not simply into short-term wind turbines, but into engineering in the sea that can and will meet needs in the long term.

The second type of energy is tidal range, with a dam being built in tidal lagoons and suchlike. One example is the west Somerset lagoon, which has been strategically located on the southern coast of the Bristol channel basin between Minehead and Watchet to take advantage of the world’s second highest tidal range. It can generate the maximum energy possible while minimising the environmental, economic and visual disturbance, in that it provides coastal protection against storms and sea level rises, and has other environmental protections.

The West Somerset lagoon can generate 6.5 TWh per year of energy, which is equivalent to the energy needs of over 2 million medium consumption homes, according to Ofgem. Again, this shows what can be done, and if it can be done there, I believe it can be done elsewhere. Such a scheme could deliver continuous power with tidal phasing as well. This could, with short-term storage added to the scheme, deliver firm, continuous power. Here we have something that has been proven to be successful in the West Somerset lagoon, that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland believes to be successful in his constituency and that I believe could be extremely successful in Strangford lough in my own constituency.

It is my considered opinion that tidal range and tidal streams complement each other, and we should look holistically at our tidal regions to determine the best use of tides in such areas. To this end, my ask to the Minister —as he knows from the debate we had in Westminster Hall, but I will ask him again—is to consider putting in place a tidal taskforce to adequately evaluate not only our potential, but how we can practically begin the process of harnessing this power in co-ordination with marine conservation. We can do it, and it has been proven it can be done, and if it can be done in Strangford lough, I believe we can deliver the green energy that can supply many homes across Northern Ireland—not just in my constituency of Strangford, but indeed across the whole Province.

Talking about this in the House is necessary, but setting up a stand-alone dedicated taskforce to deal with this is just as vital as the funding stream that needs to be given to projects including Strangford lough and wider UK concerns. While tidal streams can be built quickly and the energy produced quickly—and this is tremendous for Strangford lough—the potential of the tidal range in Strangford lough and other areas will take greater planning and long-term strategy. Now more than ever, we have the wake-up call that we must fix this in the short term, but also invest in the long term. The time for planning the new Hinkley C was 10 years ago, and I do not want to wait 10 years for this House to be looking back and asking why we did not invest in tidal range, which has the potential to provide the same amount of energy output in a much safer way.

While the cost of tidal energy may be similar to other massive energy products, such as Hinkley, its safety is much greater. Indeed, for long-term investment, the life span of a project such as the one I am suggesting to the Minister is double that of Hinkley at 120 years, with the turbines being replaced after 60 years. I know that long-term investment is needed, but I believe that our children will thank us for it, as they will have sustainable energy for generations to come. I honestly do believe that now is the time to make this investment. I am aware, as I am sure the Minister will be, that there is international interest in Strangford lough, with Canadian companies looking into this possibility. Now is the time for this House to show willingness to put investment and commitment where our mouth is, and to invest in long-term projects with a guaranteed return.

I want to pay special thanks to the Queen’s University biology station at Portaferry, which is much involved in this idea. I met it way back in the summer to discuss it. It has many pilot schemes for energising and taking advantage of the ebb and flow of the narrows in the water of Strangford lough. It has many ideas, but we keep coming back to the SeaGen pilot scheme of 2008. Its findings clearly show that the project is financially sustainable.

There is also interest in this matter from Minister Gordon Lyons at the Department for the Economy. He understands the issue and has been keen to move it forward, and his civil servants have been actively involved. There is some concern that when it comes to money from Westminster, Scotland and Wales seem to have had some advantage while Northern Ireland has not. There is now an opportunity to ensure that Strangford lough and its tidal wave energy are financially supported.

I know that if Strangford lough were eligible for the second round of tidal energy and tidal lagoons, the project would not be delivered in my time in this House, but we have to start somewhere and tonight is a good time to start. The longevity of the project would be a legacy, not of Jim Shannon because Jim Shannon does not count—

What does matter and what does count is the people of Strangford—my constituents. That is the point I want to make. The legacy will be for them—for all the households in Strangford and all the people across Northern Ireland—so it is very important. This will be inspired, perhaps, by a Government and a Minister who are determined to look at the long term and invest in clean, renewable energy that is as dependable as the sun rising and setting, and which can be planned for decades in advance. I said that at the beginning of the debate and I say it again.

To continue to ignore this potential would, I believe, be tantamount to ignoring our obligation to future generations, who will be repaying the billions of pounds we give for energy assistance this year alone—and we thank Government for that—and who would much prefer to pay off something that their children can benefit from. Now is the time, and I am asking the Minister to respond with a UK-wide, Government-guided and funded investment plan incorporating Strangford lough and other potential areas as a matter of urgency.

I extended this intervention to the Minister previously and, as he knows, I will do so again now: I invite him to come to Northern Ireland. He said he would endeavour to put that in his diary for this year, and I again invite him to come to Strangford. We will visit the Queen’s University Belfast biology station and meet some of the people there, and I hope they will convince him and help this debate progress from an Adjournment debate on 10 January 2023 to something more. Not only will that benefit us in Strangford; it will benefit everyone down the whole west coast of Scotland, England and Wales as well.

With that, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your time and look forward to hearing from the Minister. I thank Members for their interventions, and I look forward to delivering for the people of Strangford; they really are the best people in the whole world.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As I look around the Chamber, I am taken back to that Westminster Hall debate to which he referred; it feels like the gang is back together. This is an important debate, and I am pleased to see that he continues to be a champion for his constituents on the subject. I also see colleagues who were at that debate, including the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who led it.

I will touch on energy support, which the hon. Gentleman referred to. After Putin’s barbarous invasion of Ukraine, we saw people’s energy bills soaring, and they were forced to turn their minds to the meter before turning up the thermostat in their homes. In that context, the Government were and are determined to do all they can to help the people of this country, including those in Northern Ireland.

In December, I was delighted to announce that all households in Northern Ireland would receive a single, one-off £600 payment to help with their energy bills. Payments will start this month. The funding has been provided to the energy suppliers to go out to those families. I hear the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the practicalities of that. In a market for which we are not normally responsible, we were determined to find a way to reach them, and we did that. I pay tribute to my officials who put in an astonishing amount of work to stand that up and get it going. That payment comes on top of the package of unprecedented assistance with energy bills that the UK Government have already provided, including the energy price guarantee, which has reduced the energy costs of every family, and the energy bills discount scheme, which has reduced them for every business in Northern Ireland as well.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted, we are here not just to think about the short term and this winter, but to look to next winter and all the winters to come, as we seek to build a secure energy supply that drives up growth, drives down bills and meets our net zero ambitions. The best way to do that is by investing in affordable, reliable, clean energy, because energy security and net zero go hand in hand.

The Government take their net zero commitment absolutely seriously. If we are to accelerate away from fossil fuels, rolling out renewable energy is fundamental. That is why, in last year’s British energy security strategy, we reaffirmed our commitment to renewables. That means making the absolute most of the opportunities that our geology and geography afford us to deploy transformative technologies, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted. Of course, tidal is an element of that. Tidal stream energy is a home-grown industry with considerable promise to deliver affordable, clean, secure energy for households and businesses across the country. I could not be more proud of the fact that we are leading the world in deploying offshore wind, which is another technology. Off the coast of my Beverley and Holderness constituency, there is the biggest wind farm in the world, joining the second, third and fourth largest windfarms in the world, with all of them generating energy from the high winds of the North sea.

Of course, with Britain being Britain, the weather can change from windy and sunny to still and cloudy in seconds. Even when that happens, we can still rely on the tides, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. Tidal energy provides an opportunity to boost the resilience and diversity of our renewable energy system. It is an area where, with a raft of brilliant developers designing and building tidal stream devices in the UK, we currently lead the world. As he rightly said, let us not blow the opportunity that that provides us.

We have Europe’s foremost tidal and wave energy testing centre in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney. We also have new marine energy hubs developing across the country, from Morlais on Anglesey to the Perpetuus Tidal Energy Centre on the Isle of Wight in England. Thanks in large part to £175 million in innovation funding for wave and tidal power research provided by successive Governments, as of last August our waters were home to half the world’s total deployment. Thanks to the extensive support afforded by the renewables obligation mechanism, in 2018 we were able to build the largest tidal stream generating array in the world in the fast-moving waters of the Pentland firth.

The Government remain open to considering well-developed proposals for harnessing the tidal range energy in the bays and estuaries around our coastlines, including, as the hon. Gentleman said, up and down the west coast. That includes barrage schemes and other alternatives. Any such proposal would need to demonstrate strong evidence of value for money in the context of other low-carbon technologies, as well as details of its associated energy system benefits and environmental impact mitigation strategies, before the Government could take a view on its potential or on the funding models appropriate for exploration. Revised criteria for a well-developed proposal will be published in the energy national policy statement which is coming out very soon.

In the last portion of my contribution, I referred to a Canadian company—I understand the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is aware of it, too—which is keen to harness the tidal water movement of the narrows. I am a great believer that when we move forward, we can have partnerships between Government and independent companies to deliver that. Companies are in the business of making money and the Government are in the business of producing green energy, which I think they want to promote. Is that one of those things where the Minister could be instrumental in being positive and helpful?

That leads me naturally on to our system. What we try to do across all technologies, places and companies is to create an architecture that is fair, transparent and predictable—as much as that is possible. It therefore does not depend on me being sold on any particular company or solution, but allows, through decent mechanisms, the best to rise to the top. That is very much our aim.

Much of the success of tidal stream to date is down to contracts for difference, which the Government have produced and which I am delighted about. This is our flagship mechanism for supporting the cost-effective delivery of renewable energy, ensuring that the nation’s tidal stream innovators have the opportunity to bring down the costs of the technology and learn the lessons from being the first in the world to deploy it at scale. I am sure that Members were, like me, delighted that last year the Government established a ringfenced budget of £20 million for tidal stream developments in pot 2 of the fourth contracts for difference allocation round. This saw four tidal stream projects win contracts totalling 40 MW at a strike price of £178.54 per MWh. To put that into perspective, only 36 MW of tidal stream was deployed worldwide between 2010 and 2020. This is the first time that tidal stream power has been procured at this scale.

I was beyond delighted. I am on the record as having congratulated the Government many times on the commitment in AR4. We are seeing not just public money going into tidal stream, but private finance, and that really is the proof of the pudding. What we need now, though—I think the Minister knows where I am going with this—is a commitment to continue that in AR5. He has seen already what is possible with that ringfenced pot, but we need to keep it going.

Further information—we released some information before Christmas—for AR5 will come out shortly ahead of the launch of AR5, which of course has now been moved on to an annual basis, giving further confidence, I hope, to the market.

The energy transition must involve each and every part of our United Kingdom. As an integral part of the UK, that of course means Northern Ireland where, energy being a devolved matter, contracts for difference do not actually operate. However, in the Northern Ireland energy strategy, Northern Ireland set out a path to net zero energy and to meet 70% of electricity consumption from a diverse mix of renewable sources by 2030. The Government are committed to supporting Northern Ireland to succeed in that. If we are to get it right, places like Strangford lough will be critical.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford and all those involved for their support in making the pilot project a success. Strangford lough is a world first: a commercial-scale tidal energy project that by September 2012 had produced 5 GWh of tidal power since its commissioning in 2008—equivalent to the annual power consumption of 1,500 households.

Strangford shows that tidal can work; it was a major demonstrator in that sense. It shows that it is safe, too: I am delighted that Strangford lough has had no major impact on marine life, for instance. That is why we have provided it with £5.2 million of funding, in addition to £500,000 from Northern Ireland Electricity under its Smart scheme. In 2011, the project qualified to benefit from the marine renewables deployment fund, after passing the UK Government’s operating performance criteria.

It is not just Strangford lough; we continue to invest in renewable energy across Northern Ireland. Through UK Research and Innovation, we have provided Artemis Technologies with £33 million from the Strength in Places fund to drive the decarbonisation of maritime transport. Last year, Wrightbus secured an £11.2 million investment from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a low-cost hydrogen fuel cell technology and create a hydrogen centre of excellence—all part of a £54 million package.

In conclusion, it is clear that this Government are taking action on all elements of energy in Northern Ireland. We are bringing energy bills down right now, and we are harnessing the power of clean, secure, affordable energy to build an economy that is fit for the future. That includes a sound track record of supporting the tidal stream industry, where we are on the cusp of commercialisation. With excellent export potential, we are ready to lead the world, and I am confident that the tidal stream industry will continue to develop across every corner of the United Kingdom as we work together to bring green growth to each one of our countries.

In the seconds that remain, I want to go back to the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked. One was about the tidal taskforce, which I am happy to discuss further with him. Having a taskforce for everything is not necessarily the right thing; I want to make sure that we have the right architecture. We will see what happens with the CfDs and make an announcement in due course, but assuming that we get the broad architecture right, given the state of tidal stream—I will leave leadership for the moment—I am hopeful for the future.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a visit. I would be delighted to accept, in due course—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).