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Offshore Wind

Volume 832: debated on Monday 11 September 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to ensure the continued development of the offshore wind industry following the failure to attract bids in the latest Contracts for Difference round.

My Lords, the Government are disappointed that no offshore or floating offshore wind projects secured contracts for difference in the most recent allocation round. The results provide valuable learning for subsequent auctions. Work has already started on allocation round 6, incorporating the results of the recent round, and we look forward to a strong pipeline of technologies participating. The Government remain fully committed to our target of decarbonising the power system by 2035 and to our ambitions for 50 gigawatts of offshore wind, including up to 5 gigawatts of floating wind.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but can we really wait? Look at what has happened in other countries: for example, Germany had a similar experience in December then, in the subsequent two quarters, lifted its price cap and increased its number of bids by several times. In the US, Massachusetts had a failure and New York is now considering petitions to offer a higher price. This is the low-cost, low-carbon alternative: the industry is now suggesting that there is a 24-gigawatt gap for the 2030 target. Surely the Government should be taking immediate action in the shorter term to fix this problem of their own creation, given that this was widely predicted to happen before the contracts closed.

I am happy to hear the noble Baroness be so cavalier with bill payers’ funds; she is, in effect, talking about increasing the strike price. It is always difficult for the Government to strike the right balance: we want to get the best value possible for bill payers, as opposed to providing sufficient revenue for the companies to build. I obviously know which side the noble Baroness is on but I want to be on the side of the bill payer. We have already secured the largest offshore wind sector in Europe by far; she quotes the example of Germany, which should be very jealous of the amount of offshore wind capacity that we have. We secured almost 7 gigawatts in the last allocation round and, in this round, secured 91 projects with other technologies. There is a viable long-term pipeline of about 77 gigawatts of wind available to this Government and we will take advantage of it, but we will make sure that we do it at the right price for consumers.

My Lords, I am on the side of bill payers. The problem is that they will have to pay more, because we will not have the renewable energy that we would have had and will have to use more expensive gas instead. This was the Government’s fault; everybody warned that the reserve price was too low. But let us forget the past. Why can emergency legislation not pass through the House, which I am sure would be supported by all sides, so that we can replay this very quickly for the bill payer?

The bill payer will be very grateful that 7.5 gigawatts of construction is already under way, as we speak. We all want to see more, but at the right price. I understand why industry is urging us to pay more for this. That is understandable and in its commercial interests, but I would have expected most Members of this House to be on the side of bill payers as well. We can do both: we can get a good deal for the bill payer and take advantage of the many gigawatts of potential construction in there, which has either been consented or is under consent. Following a contract being let, it takes three to four years, on average, for the capacity to come on stream. Obviously, the capacity let in previous rounds is coming on stream gradually, as we speak. As I said, we consented to about 7.5 gigawatts in the last round. There will be another auction in about six months and it would take almost that long to pass new legislation.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the increase in potential of both productivity and profitability for wind power companies to fit turbines to the base of their installations, where conditions allow, to take advantage of tidal energy, which provides a baseload. What support are the Government giving companies prepared to do that?

The noble Baroness asks a very good question. Eleven tidal stream projects were consented in this allocation round, totalling about 41 megawatts. The price for that is currently higher but we need to develop this technology. I hope, as has been the case with offshore wind, that if we continue to let more CfDs the price will continue to come down over time. That was one area of the round that was successful.

My Lords, given the Government’s monumental failure—and they were warned about it, as has been said around this House—to attract any interest whatever from the energy sector in their recent CfD bidding process for offshore wind projects, can we assume there will not be any similar complacency when it comes to developing onshore wind projects, which, in light of the current failure, must now be the Government’s priority towards achieving net zero?

Again, there is no complacency. I understand that there are many projects wanting the go-ahead, but we must be careful in making sure that the consumer gets a fair deal. Lots were consented to last year; I am sure that lots will be consented to in the future. The noble Lord talks about onshore wind. I am pleased to tell him that 24 onshore wind projects were consented to and were successful in this round, totalling 888 megawatts.

Is my noble friend aware that a number of us have taken an interest in this market, recognising the enormous steps that His Majesty’s Government have taken on the development of offshore wind? At a time when it is stated that we are facing a possible bill of £65 billion to replace the internal grid to all our homes in the United Kingdom, is it not more appropriate that the resources we do have should be used for research such as that into the mix of hydrogen with LPG to see whether it can be used in the existing pipelines available to every house in the country?

The noble Lord asks a lot of different questions within what he said. I think his figure of £65 billion refers to the cost of upgrading property to EPC level C, which is a long-term aim. His separate question on hydrogen for heating is indeed a controversial subject. We will make a decision on whether to go ahead with a hydrogen village trial by the end of the year. Similarly, another issue facing us is whether to allow blending of hydrogen into the gas network; you can blend up to about 25% with the current network. Again, that is an issue where, frankly, there are a lot of pros and cons on both sides of the argument. We will make a decision on that by the end of the year as well.

The next round comes in six months’ time. Are the Government confident that the price will be set at the right level to attract a good number of significant bids?

Of course, that will be our aim. As I said, we want to see more projects consented to and we will try to get the balance right. We will certainly learn the lessons from this round. It is obviously disappointing that we did not attract bids this time, but the offshore wind industry has been a tremendous success for the UK. We have by far the largest capacity in Europe. We have the largest offshore wind farm in the world, the second largest, the third largest and the fourth largest. One reason that developers were unable to proceed this time was pressure in the supply chain. There is pressure in the supply chain because every other country in Europe wants to copy our example, because they can see the success we have made of the offshore wind allocation rounds through the contracts for difference price system. Most other European countries are trying to adopt the same model; they are a long way behind us but trying to adopt the same model now. Of course, that brings pressure in the supply chain, which, adding in the Covid pressures as well, contributes to the increase in costs that industry is experiencing.

My Lords, is it not the case that wind-generating facilities in the North Sea tend to cause mayhem with the wild bird population? Can anything be done about that?

My noble friend certainly highlights a concern, but lots of protections are built in and lots of environmental regulations need to be adhered to when these projects are consented to and all the matters are gone into fully, in both environmental and regulatory permitting. Every energy source has its drawbacks. Those who are against nuclear would point to its drawbacks; with coal-fired power stations, there are obviously drawbacks; gas-fired power stations have their drawbacks. There has been an increase in new solar farms being developed in the UK. I can assure noble Lords that, from my postbag, lots of people write in to complain about those as well. We have to get generation capacity and electricity supplies from somewhere. No system is absolutely perfect but offshore wind is certainly one of the best.

My Lords, it is unacceptable that last week’s offshore wind auction was a failure because of the Government’s insistence on an unrealistic strike price, yet we remain none the wiser about the cost of another source of electricity—nuclear energy. The cost of Sizewell C’s electricity remains shrouded in secrecy. The only thing we can be sure of is that it will be exceedingly expensive. The Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee has called for greater transparency on Sizewell’s cost. Will the Minister take this opportunity to give an updated cost estimate for Sizewell C? We need to be sure that we are on a level playing field.

I will be happy to supply those figures to the noble Baroness in writing if I can. Again, it is worth saying that, in a diversified energy system, it is important to have different sources of supply. I am very enthusiastic about solar and offshore wind; they are intermittent but they are cheap when they are generating. We also need baseload supply, so there will a role for nuclear and for gas-fired power stations, ideally with CCUS fitted as well. It is important that we have diversity of supply, including such things as tidal on a relatively small scale. Geothermal is another technology that was successful in getting contracts under this allocation round. Again, these are nascent technologies that are starting to build up. We need diversity of supply for our future generating mix.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that Britain is a world leader in offshore wind; he is right to boast gently about that. But he also said that lessons would be learned from what has just happened. Is my noble friend Lord Deben not right that we got it wrong—and that we must make absolutely sure that in six months’ time we get it right?

I have said that lessons will be learned. As I said, there is a healthy stream of projects wanting to come forward. Understandably, the developers want to be paid as much as possible. The unique thing about offshore wind is that it involves very high initial capital investment costs. Once the things are built, they are relatively cheap to operate, unlike some other sources of generation. It is all about providing long-term guarantees of revenue for those developers. There is always a process of negotiation; the CfD auction rounds have been successful in the past and I am sure that they will be in the future.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of Peers for the Planet. The Minister recognises that the offshore wind industry raised these issues some time before this round of contracts for difference. The Government did not listen and we have the results with offshore wind, as we have seen. At this time, the onshore wind industry is saying to the Government that the, frankly, puny changes in the planning regime that they announced will not bring forward the large-scale increase in onshore wind production in this country. Will the Government listen in time this time and put the planning regime for onshore wind on a level playing field with other renewable infrastructure?

I know that the noble Baroness is passionate about onshore wind. I hope the changes that we announced will produce more capacity. As I said, we have just let 24 projects under the latest CfD round. She is right that the industry said in advance of this round that it wanted to be paid more. Across all the different areas of government for which I have been responsible, I have never met a private developer who want to be paid less for what they do. Let us be realistic: this is a negotiation process. Of course, industry will say, “We need to be paid more; we need to be given larger contracts”. That is entirely understandable. We have to bear in mind our responsibility to the bill payer who ends up paying these costs. We of course want to see more renewable capacity laid out—it is intermittent but it is cheap. We need to produce a strike price that is fair to the developers, so that they get a return, but also to the bill payers.

My Lords, the Minister is right that we should praise ourselves for the offshore wind farms, which I must say are most impressive. However, the interconnectors and so on lie along the seabed. Like so many other aspects of our energy supply and other things, the seabed has certain vulnerabilities. We have seen Russian ships from the main directorate of undersea research regularly in the North Sea, going along areas where these lie. Is the Minister happy that we have put enough effort into monitoring and tracking where they are all the time and then using ships, aircraft and whatever else to go and make sure that those lines are still safe?

The noble Lord makes a good point. There are a number of such areas of critical national infrastructure, including gas-interlinking pipelines and electricity interconnector cables with other countries, as well as our interconnector cables with the offshore wind farms. These are all critical vulnerabilities and the noble Lord can be assured that we monitor these things closely. We are well aware of the possible threat presented to them.