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Orders of the Day — Electricity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 13th December 1988.

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Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie , Kirkcaldy 8:48 pm, 13th December 1988

When wind power becomes a commercial proposition, I shall be first in the queue to buy shares in Tory Back Benchers. We have just heard one of the most flatulent contributions from a Conservative Member during a debate in which the contributions from those on the Conservative Benches have rarely risen above the banal. They seem to think that we are talking about self-evident truths. They suggest that privatisation must mean competition and a better deal for consumers. No one has yet provided us with the slightest piece of information that might support that contention.

What are the United Kingdom's electricity needs? We need a cheap source of power, a secure supply, environmental safety and regard to the satisfaction of increased demands in future. After privatisation, however, the industry will have one aim only, and that will be to maximise profitability on behalf of shareholders. It will seek to maximise the return on the capital that is deployed. It will pursue that aim through minimal price competition, through the development of a cartel, as we see in so many industries that are dominated by a few producers. It will seek the cheapest source of supply. In doing so, it will have minimal regard to strategic issues such as future investment in plant. It will show minimal concern for the consumer and minimal regard for indigenous sources of supply. Unemployment and misery will be caused as a result.

The need for profitability will lead the industry to sell as much electricity as possible. There will be no incentive for it to save energy and it will use all that is produced. It will minimise the drive for the creation of new plant, as it will wish to maximise the return of capital. This may lead in future to under-development, gaps in provision and shortages for consumers. Consumers will face increasing prices, increasing insecurity and probably a reduction in safety.

The main problem is that the power requirement in future will increase, and all methods of generating it have environmentally deleterious effects. We have heard nuclear power described so glowingly by Conservative Members, but perhaps that is an inappropriate term. There is the problem of low-level emission radiation, which is generally accepted by my profession to be a bad thing. There is the more unlikely but finite possibility of catastrophic accidents at nuclear plants. In a crowded country such as ours, such accidents would sterilise a large section of our land.

There is the problem of storage of spent fuel and its processing. There is the problem of decommissioning power stations when they have reached the end of their useful life. There is the problem also—it has not been mentioned by Conservative Members—of difficulties in the supply of fuel. We do not produce our own fuel for nuclear power stations, and there is no guarantee of stability in price or in supply. The fuel comes from South Africa, Namibia, Zaire and Bolivia, for example. These are countries which have poor safety records for their workers, and the likelihood of stable future political conditions cannot be guaranteed.

At present, nuclear power is not a good option. We have that admission from the lips of the director of the South of Scotland electricity board, Mr. Miller. There is no doubt, however, that there are future possibilities for the supply of nuclear generated electricity. We have the fast breeder technology and the developments at Dounreay. There is also the possibility of nuclear fusion. I shall return briefly to these possibilities and developments at the end of my speech.

The other main source of supply is coal, of which we have vast indigenous supplies. At present, it is relatively cheap, and it is likely to remain so. Coal-fired power stations are cheaper to build than nuclear stations and are generally safer and more economical. Smaller coal-fired power stations are suitable for combined heat and power projects, especially when the fluidised bed method of burning the stuff is used, which offers a more efficient utilisation of fuel.

Of course there are problems with coal. Burning coal emits sulphur and nitrous oxides which can be removed by burning low-sulphur coal which ex-miners in my constituency, if they were given the chance, would be delighted to produce, because my constituency sits on about 12 ft of such coal. Alternatively, and more expensively, the emissions may be treated by scrubbing the noxious gases on a sluice.

Carbon dioxide is also a problem. Conservative Members have made much of that problem, but we must recognise that burning coal does not produce much carbon dioxide compared with the burning of fuel generally and the loss of the biomass in the tropical rain forest. It is interesting that an American company which is about to build a power station has agreed, as part of the deal, to replace a proportion of the biomass in the tropical area, thereby reducing the contribution of the emissions to the overall load of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We must surely consider that, but it has not been considered so far in this country. It is possible to diminish the effects of carbon dioxide release if we are prepared to take action.

Sadly, other alternatives like wave, wind, tidal power, geothermal or solar sources are not yet commercially viable. Bearing in mind cost and feasibility, such alternative power supplies can only be considered in future. What are the needs for a national strategy? We must consider the long-term need for cheap, secure and expanding supplies of energy. At present, coal is undoubtedly the cheapest option.

Nuclear power is currently too expensive and too risky, even if we consider the pressurised water reactor programme. which I believe should be abandoned. Perhaps, in future, nuclear energy will have a part to play. We should continue to invest very heavily in research into ways to make that a reality, particular in fast breeder technology and nuclear fusion. Sadly, the Government are reducing their investment in those areas. We must also study the safety aspects more carefully, particularly with regard to the decommissioning programme on the Magnox stations. Nuclear power may well have a role to play in future, but it has very little role to play at present other than in providing expensive electricity for a hapless consumer.

The main alternative must be to maximise the efficiency of utilisation of supplies. There will be no incentive for a privatised electricity industry to do that. Its incentive would be to sell as much as possible. As responsible politicians, our incentive should be to minimise consumption through better insulation and utilisation and through the use of energy-efficient appliances and storage systems like those used by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. We must consider the development of alternative sources and carry out feasibility studies on wind, wave and tidal power. If we do that, we can be certain of a secure supply of energy in future. The Government's proposals do not offer us that option.