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Energy: Electricity Supplies

Volume 702: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why electricity supplies were disrupted on 27 May, in consequence of which the National Grid issued a “demand control imminent” warning.

My Lords, the precise causes of the disruption are being investigated by National Grid. The immediate causes were near-simultaneous, unscheduled outages at Sizewell B and Long Gannet power plants. The resulting disturbances to the supply/demand balance triggered an automatic response designed to cut demand and preserve the integrity of the system as a whole. The action was sufficient to stabilise the system, but supplies to about half a million customers were cut off. Most were restored within an hour.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. With the enormous rise in energy prices, coupled with our need to buy from abroad because of our short supply of gas storage and the imminent loss of nearly 90 per cent of our nuclear capability, will she explain how we can avoid such a thing ever happening again? When will the Government proactively consider and encourage new nuclear build so that we never again have to go abroad with a begging bowl because we are short of supplies in this country?

My Lords, perhaps I should explain that the outages were not related to generating capacity. The generating margin, which is the capacity over peak demand at any time, is currently 26 per cent, which is historically very high. It was 19 per cent in 1997. The outages were caused by system and other outages and errors that are currently being investigated. Nevertheless, the noble Baroness makes a valid point about the need to ensure that we can have new nuclear on stream effectively and efficiently. I assume that the noble Baroness and her noble friends will be supporting the Planning Bill, which is essential to ensure that we can get planning support.

My Lords, does not my noble friend welcome the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller? It is the first time that I have heard a prominent speaker from the Conservative Benches asking us to go forward with nuclear as quickly as we can.

My Lords, I was delighted to hear the unequivocal support for nuclear, which the Leader of the Opposition is unable to provide.

My Lords, from these Benches we do not give unequivocal support for nuclear. Was it not the outages in the nuclear power stations that led to the problems in May? Considering the problems with new build on nuclear, is it not unlikely that a significant amount of general electricity will be generated by new nuclear build until the 2020s? If so, what are the Government’s plans for meeting the shortfall?

My Lords, new nuclear is anticipated to come on stream by 2017 to 2020—not the 2020s. The shortage was caused by two plants having an outage within two minutes of each other, which has never occurred before, and which has a probability rate of 0.01 per cent. Sizewell B was one of them but that plant has been running for three and a half years without any unanticipated outages, and no generating technology is immune to outages.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain to the House what is an outage? Is it the same as a power cut?

My Lords, why on earth cannot the noble Baroness speak English and say “power cut” so that we can all understand?

My Lords, I apologise if I was not speaking English. I was using the technically correct language.

My Lords, if, as the Minister tells us, there is 26 per cent surplus capacity, why did it not cut in when the two power stations broke down?

My Lords, at any point in time a reserve is held. As the event had never previously occurred, the capacity held in reserve was not sufficient for two plants going down at the same time. Furthermore, as it takes between four and 12 hours for new plants to come online, it was not possible to deal with that amount of generation capacity going offline at that time.

My Lords, is not the real criticism of the Government that they took 10 years to make up their mind about nuclear power?

My Lords, this issue has troubled all sides of every party. It has been a courageous decision to ensure that we now have a nuclear programme that will be one of the first in the world in the new generation of nuclear. We are fully supportive and are doing everything that we can to ensure that it comes on line in time.

My Lords, have the Government had discussions with the National Grid about its policy of building thousands of wind turbines? Is not the National Grid concerned about the connection of these wind turbines and will it not require additional conventional capacity to be built to cover the time when the wind is not turning them?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. In answer to the question that was asked earlier, wind generation is intermittent and therefore needs—may I use a technical term?—base-load capacity, which means we need to build for coal and gas to back up the wind. That is why it is not the most effective source in terms of energy security of supply, but it is very effective for climate change.