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Gas-fired Power Stations

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to make a statement on the Government’s plan to build new gas-fired power stations.

The second consultation of the review of electricity market arrangements was launched yesterday. It sets out the choices that we need to make to deliver a fully decarbonised electricity system by 2035. Since 2010, the Government have reduced emissions from power by 65% and thus made the UK the first major economy in the world to halve emissions overall. We have built record volumes of renewables, from less than 7% of electricity supply in 2010 to nearly 50% today, allowing us to remove coal altogether by October this year.

Our success in growing renewables is the reason we need flexible back-up for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Our main source of flexible power today is unabated gas. More than half of our 15 GW of combined-cycle gas turbines could be retired by 2035. Meanwhile, electricity demand is set to increase as heat, transport and industry are electrified. We must ensure that we have sufficient sources of flexibility in place to guarantee security of supply. We need up to 55 GW of short-duration flexibility and between 30 and 50 GW of long-duration flexibility. Our aim is for as much of that capacity as possible to be low carbon.

While low-carbon technologies scale up, we will extend the life of our existing gas assets, but a limited amount of new build gas capacity will also be required in the short term to replace expiring plants as it is the only mature technology capable of providing sustained flexible capacity. We remain committed to delivering a fully decarbonised electricity supply by 2035, subject to security of supply, and we expect most new gas capacity to be built net zero-ready. The Government have committed £20 billion to carbon capture, usage and storage, and are developing comprehensive support for hydrogen. In the future, unabated gas plants will run for only a limited number of hours a year, so emissions will be entirely in line with our legally binding carbon budgets.

I am a bit tired of this Government shunning any scrutiny of their climate record and instead relying on a past record, because while the UK may indeed be the first major economy to cut its territorial emissions by half since 1990, we are not on track to achieve our 2030 targets, and if we factor in consumption emissions, the UK has cut emissions by only 23%. So let’s have a little less complacency from the Minister. He will know that the Government’s announcement on new gas-fired power stations does in fact, contrary to what he claimed, risk undermining our climate targets and leaving the country reliant on imports of expensive gas. Members should have been given the opportunity to question the Minister on its implications for the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy system by 2035, with 95% of UK electricity being low carbon by 2030.

First, why was the statement not made in Parliament? Why was it made instead at Chatham House, where Members were not able to question the Minister on the impact of this decision? Secondly, will the Minister explain how this proposal differs from the functioning of the existing capacity market, or will he admit that it is just the Government’s latest attempt to stoke a culture war on climate? Thirdly, the Climate Change Committee is clear that no new unabated gas plants should be built after 2030, so what is the Government’s timeline for developing these new gas-fired power stations?

I asked the Minister about this yesterday in the Environmental Audit Committee; I did not get a response. I also asked him what is being done to ensure that these gas plants are zero carbon by 2035; that was not set out either in the Secretary of State’s speech yesterday or by the Minister today. The Minister did tell the Environmental Audit Committee that the plants would be required to be both carbon capture and storage-ready and hydrogen-ready. That does not amount to a meaningful plan, so will he please give us more than his thus far unevidenced words of assurance, and will he explain what the Government’s plan is to support the development of batteries and long-term storage technologies and to drive innovation so that we can get off volatile gas for good?

It is rather odd to be asked about the ability to scrutinise this, when yesterday was the launch of a consultation that will go on for some time and, as the hon. Lady knows, I was in front of the Select Committee yesterday. It is rather strange that she should highlight that point.

The hon. Lady is confused, as she often is, because she is so political. She would appear to set politics always ahead of climate. She struggles to recognise that that United Nations framework convention on climate change rules are about territorial emissions—countries own the emissions in the territory where they take place. Her numbers on embedded emissions are wrong, but she does not care about that; she just carries on with a political diatribe against the Government, who have done more than any other in any major economy on this Earth to decarbonise their economy. And we have done it not as the hon. Lady would have us do it—by being reduced to living in yurts—but while growing the economy by 82%. It is people like the hon. Lady who make people on my side of the Chamber at times think that we are perhaps engaged in some form of madness; we are not, but she doesn’t half make it sound like we are.

Can these new gas plants be consistent with the Government’s commitment to decarbonise the power sector by 2035? Our published net zero scenarios for the power sector—I invite the hon. Lady to read them—show that building new gas capacity is consistent with decarbonising electricity by 2035. From those scenarios we expect that, even with new gas capacity, rather than the 38% of electricity generation which in 2022 came from gas, that figure will be down to 1% by 2035—or, if we follow the scenario set out by the Climate Change Committee, perhaps 2%. We are going to have that as a back-up. It is sensible insurance; it is about keeping the lights on while we carry on the remarkable transformation this Government have achieved in moving from the appalling legacy of the Labour party of less than 7% of electricity coming from renewables to nearly 50% today.

The announcement on gas-fired power stations is extremely welcome, but at the moment a kilowatt-hour of electricity in the UK costs 44 cents, against 17 cents in the US and 8 cents in both China and India. We have become fundamentally uncompetitive because of this green obsession. We want cheap electricity and we should have gas and we should have coal, and we should postpone net zero indefinitely because we are only 1% of global emissions. We are making no difference, and the US economy is growing consistently faster than ours because of cheap energy. This is a good first step against the net zero obsession. We need to go further.

I would chide my right hon. Friend with the science and evidence that are emerging all the time. There is a climate challenge and emergency, which is why we are looking to reduce our emissions. He is quite right to challenge that by saying, “We are less than 1% of global emissions, so how does this make sense?” That is why we hosted COP26 and got the rest of the world to commit to following us. We are bringing in the carbon border adjustment mechanism from 2027 precisely to ensure that we create an economically rational system that supports jobs in this country, while meeting the climate challenge that needs to be met.

I am little puzzled about what all this is about. The Committee on Climate Change and all credible energy experts have said that we will need a small residual of unabated gas in the system for the medium term, and that is consistent with a fully decarbonised power system. No one disputes that, and it is barely worth an announcement. We should extend the lives of existing plants to meet that need. If new-build plants are needed in the short term to replace some of those retiring gas-fired power stations, there is no disagreement, provided they are capable of converting to hydrogen or carbon capture, as the Government say they must be.

However, that is not what the Secretary of State said yesterday at the Chatham House meeting. The Government’s own analysis published yesterday shows that 24 GW of existing gas capacity could be maintained via life extension and refurbishment, and 9 GW of new capacity is already in the baseline under existing capacity market arrangements. That is an uncontroversial position and analysis, and hardly something worth making a huge fuss about. But again, that was not what the Secretary of State talked about at yesterday’s Chatham House conference.

Given that analysis, could the Minister enlighten us with the number of new gas plants that the Government are hoping to build, given there is no mention of that in the 1,500 pages of documents that were published yesterday? That is an important point, because it appears to show the Government’s intention to go beyond what is already in the analysis and build a large number of new gas-fired power stations for the future.

There is a great deal in the review of electricity market arrangements published yesterday that is worth discussing, not least the Government’s glaring failure to bring forward low-carbon flexible technologies such as long-duration storage, which everyone knows we will need. It is a shame that the Minister has not properly addressed that. Will he give us clarity on whether this is a meaningless announcement within existing policy arrangements? Or, as has been said, is it an attempt to conjure a culture war out of climate and energy policy, with announcements with no substance or value that show that the Government have no serious plan for energy in our country?

The hon. Gentleman asked whether new power plants will be hydrogen or carbon capture, utilisation and storage ready; we will legislate to make that a requirement. He asked how much there will be; around 5 GW, but that is dependent on so many interrelated things, such as the growth of low-carbon and flexible storage, which, as he referred to we are a world leader in developing and supporting both in innovation and through the capacity market. He suggested that none of that was clear yesterday, but it was made crystal clear.

We are a world leader, having announced £20 billion for CCUS. The hon. Gentleman will remember, because he has been around a long time, that in 2003 the then Labour Government said that carbon capture, utilisation and storage was urgent and that there was no route to 2050 without it, but then they proceeded to do nothing about it. This Government are getting on with it. We are putting our money where our mouth is and developing technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen, in a way that the Labour Government failed to do—as they did with renewables, to boot. All they do is talk about climate, but the truth is that the greatest climate risk to this country is if the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) destroys the market and starts some state-run quango, which will wreck the renewables growth that we have seen.

I welcome the announcement. The independent Committee On Climate Change recognises that we will need unabated gas in the electricity market right up until 2035 and beyond, and more widely that even in 2050, 25% of our energy needs will come from hydrocarbons. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is exactly the right way to maintain lower energy production costs, while still meeting our net zero targets?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The point is to have a wide range of back-up capacity, but not to use it very much with fossil fuels, and, as I think has long been the case, to ensure that any new gas generation should be carbon capture-ready. We look forward to it being hydrogen-ready, too. We are in a very similar position to Germany and other countries that are looking at exactly that. For instance, I think both Germany and Ireland, as part of their growth in renewables, recognise the need for gas, albeit used less and less, to ensure that the lights stay on and there is appropriate insurance in place.

What a cluster—it is unbelievable that we are in this situation. In the Secretary of State’s letter to Members today, she said that the Government are taking steps to make sure the lights stay on. That is the legacy of 14 years of the Conservatives in charge of energy. Uncomfortably, I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg). This is a significant departure, and one we should be alarmed about. Where is the Government’s precious nuclear baseload now? Where is the exemplar of CCUS working at the necessary scale, from which the Government are taking inspiration? Would it not have been an elegant solution to have unabated gas winding down at the same time as battery storage and long-duration pump storage was winding up? We cannot have that, because the Government have dragged their feet on both things. What does the Minister say to people who are having infrastructure for transmission put throughout their communities and are being told to suck it up because that is what we need to get gas out the system, when the same Government are now building gas-fired power stations?

The hon. Gentleman, who is supposed to lead on this subject for his party, should have listened to what I said earlier. In 2022, 38% of generation came from gas. By the mid-2030s, it will be 1% or 2%. Why are we having it? To balance the renewables we are growing, particularly in Scotland, and support Scottish jobs. Of course if we put generation in Scotland when the demand is in the south, we have to provide connecting infrastructure. Previous generations had to wire up the UK to become the rich and prosperous country we are today. We need to do it again now. We are working with local communities, listening to their voices and making sure they are not misled by people who come up with such nonsense as the hon. Gentleman just did.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his refreshingly clear articulation of our strong record in this area, both in the House today and in the media yesterday. Obviously, security of supply must come first. How will the plans incentivise investment in back-up gas-fired power stations, while minimising costs to consumers, which is also very important?

I thank my hon. Friend. He and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) are absolutely right to focus on the economics. We have to get the economics right. We have used an auction-type mechanism in the capacity market to ensure flexible capacity. We are incentivising more and more of that to be low carbon, with batteries coming in at scale, as well as pumps and potentially hydrostorage. We also need hydrogen and carbon capture. We are ensuring a balanced system with discipline built into it to drive costs down. When CBAMs and so on come on stream, I firmly expect that in the 2030s we will have lower-cost energy than our neighbours and we will, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred to, be more economically competitive.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—tapadh leibh.

It is concerning that this was announced in Chatham House and not here in the House, and that the Secretary of State is not here today. Off-piste speeches have cost in the past. My Committee heard this morning that an Energy Minister made a speech a decade ago that, with the effect it had on investment, cost 1,000 jobs. The Minister says that this is a consultation, but have the Government picked a winner? What room have they given for storage to be in the mix? Are they confusing energy security—we have learned from the Ukraine war important how that is—with continual electricity supply? Given what the Minister says about the percentage of gas used by 2030 and after, what percentage of capacity will this provide, and what percentage does he envisage will be used day to day? What thought has been given to consideration of other technologies in his gigawatt demand?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I suggested, on different scenarios, about 1% or 2% of total generation coming from gas in future, compared with 38% in 2022, on an annualised basis. Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman should know better than anybody here with his deep knowledge of the subject, it is based on intermittency. It depends on how much the sun shines and how much the wind blows, but we will ensure we have a robust system. That is exactly what we are doing. I would love it if people could celebrate this country’s global leadership and the fact that we are driving this forward, especially those such as members of the Green party, who are supposed to care about climate change. We are doing this in a way that maintains security of supply and, by bringing in more and more renewables, with the lowest-cost and most flexible system to back it up, doing so in a more and more economical fashion.

I welcome the announcement today. It is pure common sense. When the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, we need security of supply. Although we need to deal with climate change in the medium to long term, we must also deal with security of supply in the short term, so I welcome the announcement. Does the Minister agree that for medium and longer-term security of supply, we must upscale what we are doing in the hydrogen sector, with more hydrogen production and usage, and be a world leader in hydrogen? For the moment, we are slipping behind a bit.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of hydrogen. Where I disagree with him is that, having seen the projects in hydrogen allocation round 1—eight projects, I think—I do not think there is any indication that we are slipping behind. The truth is that the whole world needs to do this, because everyone’s analysis, from the International Energy Agency to the Climate Change Committee to my own Department, suggests that hydrogen and carbon capture are necessary to bring about the decarbonised system we seek. He is absolutely right on the importance of hydrogen. He can expect more developments, because this country is leading on that, as it is on CCUS.

I have a great deal of respect for the Minister and his knowledge of the subject, and the fact that he, like most of us in this Chamber, recognises the need to cut carbon. I am sure he is not one of those who, like the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, would follow the flat earthers. But clearly, a great deal of trust and reliance is being put on carbon capture and storage, and on hydrogen. Both are still quite new technologies. We have talked about this stuff for 25 years. The Minister seemingly forgets that this Government have been in power for the past 14 years and we are still not off the blocks on hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. Is it not the case that the Government are taking this position because it is a nod and a wink to the gas and oil industries whose support they will probably need before the election this year, and that this is part of the whole agenda of placating the right wing of his own party?

I was with the hon. Gentleman nearly all the way. He is right: the whole world is looking at carbon capture and hydrogen, because that is what the science says. Everybody who analyses it says that we need it bur that it is not yet at a great level of maturity. Just as in so many other areas, this country is leading the way. We have cut emissions more than anyone else. He knows the dire legacy left by his party in 2010, with less than 7% of electricity from renewables, which was just appalling, and the real danger if we go back to that. That is why we have gas power as a back-up, so that we have a completely sound system. We will seek to deliver a decarbonised system by 2035. The biggest risk to that would be if the right hon. Member for Doncaster North were to come in and start to mess with a system that has lifted us from the back to the front of climate leadership. That is the real danger, and that is what we need to avoid.

Will my right hon. Friend stop by South Derbyshire, specifically the Willington site, which already has planning permission for a new gas power station, and cut the ribbon when it opens? We want spades in the ground, so I welcome the announcement. I invite him to come and have a look at that site, which is ready to go.

I agree with my hon. Friend and I applaud those who are investing in our system. We have made ourselves one of the most investable countries in the world for clean energy. Gas has an important part to play in that balance, and with the development of carbon capture and hydrogen there is every opportunity for such assets to have an even longer life in a green fashion. I would love to come and see my hon. Friend.

Oil and gas are the energy sources of the past, and we need an intermittent energy source. Gas power plants are not intermittent. They sit there, and then because there is too much renewable energy it is shut off, and gas—the carbon energy—continues to flow. That is the reality of today: we are wasting renewable energy. The Government do not recognise that reality, and do not respond to it.

My question is this, however. How many times have Ministers met representatives of the oil and gas industry, and how does that compare with the number of meetings with representatives of the renewables industry?

As so often—the hon. Lady does it spectacularly well—she is completely and utterly wrong. Renewables are turned off, as she would say, because of constraints within the system, and gas is turned on because the system could not cope otherwise. That is why we have the transmission acceleration action plan and the connections action plan. [Interruption.] Every time we try to build out the infrastructure, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) opposes it. He says that he and the Scottish National party want to be a friend of the renewables industry and Scottish jobs, but then he opposes the infrastructure that is required for it.

I meet representatives of the oil and gas industry a lot, because the truth is that even given our world leadership—and we have cut emissions by more than any other major economy on the planet—75% of our primary energy today is still from oil and gas. We will still be dependent on oil and gas in 2050, when we are at net zero. That is why it is so crazy that the Opposition parties, including that of the hon. Lady, believe in opposing licences when we are actually dependent on the product. All that ending licences would do is lead to the loss of British jobs and the import of higher-emission products from abroad. I really do hope that Opposition Members will think a bit more deeply and we can hear some common sense. I hear it in the Corridors from Back Benchers, but from the Front Benchers and the hon. Lady I hear nothing but nonsense.

I welcome this policy decision, which is a recognition of reality. Can the Minister confirm that the new plants will be able to convert to low-carbon alternatives in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend. We will be legislating precisely to create exactly that obligation for carbon capture and/or hydrogen readiness.

I hope that this decision is indicative of a realisation that seems to be slowly dawning on the Government about the impact of the madness of their net zero policy, which has damaged the UK economy. We have higher electricity prices than most of the other G7 countries, we have lost vast numbers of jobs in energy-intensive industries, and now it has been recognised that because of the intermittency of wind and solar there is a risk of blackouts.

I welcome this common-sense decision, but given that we are going to use gas to power these stations, why does the Minister not take the next logical step and legislate to allow us to tap into our vast UK gas resources? As the United States has shown, that would bring down prices, give us energy security, and make our economy more competitive.

The right hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong: we have record levels of employment, and we overtook France recently to become the eighth largest manufacturer in the world. I would not expect him to join the dismal party opposite in talking this country down. In truth, we are leading the world in tackling climate change, and we have created more jobs than at any time in British history. Going forward into the 2030s, by harnessing more and more British low-carbon, renewable energy we will lower bills for families and increase our competitiveness. As I have said, in a world that is increasingly recognising the need for action and seeking to introduce measures such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism—effectively, carbon taxes at the border—the UK is in pole position to grow from its already strong economic position into an even stronger one as a result of the net zero policies of this Government.

Across London and the south-east, many much-needed developments that are required for the increasing population have literally been frozen because of a lack of supply from the grid. Nuclear power can provide the baseload; renewables are unreliable, and obviously gas is required at peak times in particular. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is all about topping up the grid at peak times, when people want to use electricity, because gas is the fastest way to bring a power station on to the grid and is also the fastest to shut down?

My hon. Friend will be aware of all the work we are doing to speed up transmission. We are halving the timeline from 12 to 14 years to seven, and the connections action plan has already moved forward connection dates for projects amounting to 40 GW. We are putting in a lot of work across the piece. This gas capability is there as a back-up, but the usage and the emissions resulting from it will fall precipitately over the next 10 years, and we can all celebrate that.

After their years of delaying meaningful investment in clean, cheaper, reliable renewable energy technologies such as tidal and long-duration pumped hydro storage, it is no surprise that the Government are now having to scramble to create new dirty gas-powered plants. How much does the Department estimate the new plants will cost, where is it suggesting they should be built, and what does the Minister mean by carbon-capture-ready? Does he mean carbon-capture-operational?

As I have said, further legislation will come forward in the not-too-distant future, and the hon. Lady will be able to scrutinise it—but it is extraordinary that she should say of a country whose renewable energy generation has risen from less than 7% to approaching 50% that we have gone slow on renewables. We have decarbonised our power system faster than any other major economy on the planet.

The reality denial that we hear from the Scottish National party is quite extraordinary. The hon. Lady highlighted tidal energy. Well, guess which country in the world uses the most tidal energy. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is one of the greatest champions of tidal, could tell the hon. Lady, if she is really so ignorant. He is a fellow Scottish MP, and he could tell her that the UK has more tidal deployment than any other nation. We are proud of that, we are proud of the transformation, and it is about time the SNP and the Labour party stopped misleading the people and the House.

The Minister said earlier that we faced a climate challenge, after struggling for words to describe what we are facing. Why can the Government not join the global consensus and admit that what we are facing is a climate emergency? As the Secretary-General of the United Nations has said, the year of climate warming is over and we are in an era of climate burning.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not primarily concerned with words—I am primarily concerned with action—but in fact I did use the “emergency” word. I do not know whether I broke some golden rule which says that Ministers should not use it, but I do treat this as an emergency. I see the world warming up, I see the negative impacts of climate change, and that is why I spend every single day feeling proud to be part of the Department that is decarbonising its country faster than any other in the world. The hon. Gentleman should get away from rhetoric and start to focus on action.

I thank the Minister for all his answers. While there is certainly an urge to prioritise our net zero promises, I am grateful to the Government for taking back-up precautions into consideration. As the Minister has often recognised in responding to questions from me, Northern Ireland plays an important role in our contribution to meeting the net zero targets. Will he therefore ensure that Northern Ireland is prioritised as a leading location for any new gas-powered stations that are to be built?

The hon. Gentleman sometimes gives the impression that he would like me to be running the energy system in Northern Ireland, but it is devolved—and we have Ministers there again, which is a cause for celebration. I will work closely with Ministers in Northern Ireland, as I do with Ministers in other devolved Administrations, because if we are to meet our net zero targets, Northern Ireland must deliver its own targets. Scotland has to deliver its targets, as does Wales.

We must work together, in a spirit of collaboration. We can do that, and if the hon. Gentleman can persuade his right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is sitting beside him, that it can be done in a way that strengthens our economy as well, we really will have something to celebrate.