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Energy: Electricity Supplies

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to secure the short-term reliability of electricity supplies.

My Lords, the provision of electricity to meet consumer demand is the responsibility of electricity supply companies. National Grid is responsible for ensuring adequate and reliable network capacity and for carrying out the residual electricity balancing activity. The electricity network has been well over 99.99 per cent reliable in recent years and National Grid indicates that for the summer and coming winter demand should be met in full in all but the most extreme circumstances.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree that at least 10 years are likely to elapse before large new generating capacity, whether nuclear or other, to replace the present ageing capacity can come into operation and that the major impact of the recently announced renewable energy strategy will also occur at about the same time? Is it not a fact that most of the Government’s energy policy declarations have been of a long-term nature? In those circumstances, is there not a case for an urgent review of short-term electricity prospects, with a view to the maintenance of security of supply and the avoidance of any further system failures?

My Lords, I respect very much the noble Lord’s reputation in this field, but I am afraid that I cannot agree with him when he suggests that 10 years are likely to elapse before large new generating capacity comes into operation. Significant new generation capacity is already being delivered. By 2010, 8 gigawatts of new capacity presently under construction should be available. There is already consent for 2.5 gigawatts more and there are outstanding applications for consent for almost another 4.5 gigawatts. That amounts to 15 gigawatts, which is equivalent to around 20 per cent of current generation capacity. Of course, I understand the problems that the noble Lord mentioned, which the Government are addressing.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, makes a very acute point. Is not the central consideration, which with respect the Minister has slightly missed, that over the next seven or eight years we have to retire almost 40 per cent of existing generating capacity, from ageing nuclear, the ageing coal plants and various other sources? What will fill that 40 per cent gap? Even if we start building nuclear tomorrow morning, it is too late now for us to fill the gap with nuclear. There is talk of more gas, although the Russians are tricky suppliers. The idea that wind farms can fill the gap is totally unrealistic. What will fill the gap to prevent real power cuts and electricity rationing?

My Lords, as the noble Lord suggests, over the next decade 22.5 gigawatts of generating capacity may close as coal and oil generation become subject to increasingly stringent environmental standards. Indeed, by 2020, our electricity generating system will need to be larger than at present in order to provide back-up for wind generation. However, the central scenario of the renewable energy strategy, which I had hoped that the party opposite would support, sees an investment of around 30 gigawatts of new renewable capacity and a further 17 gigawatts of new conventional capacity. I am sorry that the party opposite seems to have turned its head against any new coal-fired power stations because, as part of the mix, it is essential that we should consider having some of those, too.

My Lords, did not the noble Lord omit in his reply the one sure way of increasing the reliability of electricity supply, which is to reduce the winter peak load through the application of a daylight saving policy? That is the way in which at least 78 more enlightened countries now enjoy a reliable grid and lighter winter evenings. Where is the statistical proof that the darker evenings policy, which his Government and the Opposition have pursued since 1971, has reduced by one iota the winter peak load, household electric bills, road deaths or the grid’s ever increasing carbon footprint?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has wide support throughout the House for what he has to say. I will make sure that, yet again, this is passed back to the Government. No doubt the Opposition have also heard what has been suggested.

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend two questions. Has he any information on how much we are relying on electricity from France and how far does that relate to assurances for the future? Given the problem that has been described by the opposition Front Bench, could the answer be a partnership in nuclear energy with France?

My Lords, we have close relations with our neighbours in France regarding the generation of electricity. I do not have the details that my noble friend asks for, but the fact remains that the relationship is close and important. Currently, quite a lot of our electricity comes from French nuclear reactors, perhaps 30 miles off the English coast.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the reply given to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, by his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera, on 23 June when she said that wind, due to its intermittency, was not the best source for energy supply? In these circumstances, why do Her Majesty’s Government continue to subsidise wind power in such a huge way when new nuclear build would, if they were prepared to help, ensure security of supply and low climate change? Perhaps even better, it would ensure that our Prime Minister did not have to go to Saudi Arabia with a begging bowl.

My Lords, I heard my noble friend Lady Vadera answer the noble Baroness’s Question nine days ago. I thought that my noble friend made the extraordinarily good point that, thank goodness, and perhaps through the noble Baroness’s good influence, the wobble that the Opposition had on nuclear power now seems to have disappeared. I am delighted to hear that. We believe that wind power will play a very important part in the mix in future, but so will nuclear, and it is this Government who have had the courage to take that decision.