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Report (3rd Day)

Part of Infrastructure Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 9:45 pm, 10th November 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, for yet again bringing this subject to the attention of the House. As my noble friend Lord Caithness eloquently said, we debated this amendment during the passage of the Energy Bill less than a year ago. Noble Lords will recall that, after careful consideration, this House and the other place decided that it should not be adopted. I do not propose to set out in detail again the reasons why the Government did not support this amendment when it was last considered. However, noble Lords will recall that the Government’s main concern was that it could lead to circumstances where existing coal plants closed prematurely, leading to a need for more generation capacity to be built earlier than would otherwise be necessary, and resulting in totally unnecessary and avoidable cost to consumers.

I want to address the points made by the noble Baroness that developments since we last considered this amendment make it necessary to reconsider the conclusion we reached at the time. It is true that there have been a number of developments over the course of this year. We have set about implementing our electricity market reforms, which include taking the actions that are delivering new investment and our plans for a secure, affordable and low-carbon electricity system. That is well demonstrated by the allocation in April of the first contracts for difference to eight renewables projects. These projects include offshore wind farms and coal to biomass conversions, which alone will provide up to £12 billion of private sector investment by 2020, supporting around 8,500 jobs and providing a further 4.5 gigawatts of low-carbon generation capacity to Britain’s energy mix.

The noble Baroness pointed to the capacity market and the fact that four of the 11 remaining coal plants are seeking a three-year capacity agreement to refurbish their plant. She said that that is evidence that these plants will upgrade to comply with the industrial emissions directive allowing them to continue operation long into the future and generating at levels inconsistent with our decarbonisation plans. She also pointed out that the freezing of the carbon price floor improves the economics of continuing to operate coal-fired power stations. The fact is that neither of these developments is expected to have a significant impact on the overall future outlook for coal.

The Government’s latest projections, which take into account recent changes to the carbon price floor, suggest that virtually all coal will have retired by the end of 2025. Only one of the four plants seeking a three-year capacity agreement has fitted the equipment needed to comply with the directive and operate without constraint when it comes into force on 1 January 2016, as my noble friend Lord Caithness rightly said. We are not aware of evidence that any of the other plants will be compliant with the directive at the time it comes into force.

Even were these plants to achieve compliance at some point in the future, our assessment remains that overall levels of generation from coal will decline over time as multiple factors, including age, environmental regulation, increasing levels of low carbon generation and a strengthening carbon price, act to reduce coal generation, although the additional resilience to our energy system that comes from a small number of compliant plants while they are still economic to operate would not be unwelcome.

The risks that would be created by this amendment are also more immediate. I would like to draw the attention of noble Lords to the first auction under the capacity market that will be held in December, which is our response to ensuring security of supply at the least cost to the consumer. A potential impact of this amendment is to constrain the ability of plants to generate when it is otherwise economic for them to do so. Accepting this amendment will therefore create a significant regulatory risk to those plants seeking refurbishment contracts in the capacity market. Their response may therefore be to seek a higher capacity clearing price to compensate for this possible reduction in electricity market revenue, particularly in the years preceding the first delivery year in 2018-19. Alternatively, these investments may not go-ahead. Neither scenario is desirable, with the risk that the cost of the capacity market is pushed upwards with no accompanying benefit to security of supply.

We should also consider what sort of signal it sends to investors of all types of generation, not just coal, now and in the future. They will interpret this as further intervention of a measure that has already been rejected by this House and so close to the first capacity market auction where we will be seeking competitive commitments from over 48 gigawatts of capacity to ensure continued security of our electricity supplies over the course of this decade. It is also important to remember that over 10 gigawatts of new gas has come forward to participate in the December auction, highlighting that we have the right incentives in place to ensure security of supply at the least cost to consumers and to encourage competition through new investment. As we discussed last year, I will oppose an amendment that has the potential to increase consumer bills and increase the risks to security of supply.

There is an almost unanimous consensus on the need to substantially decarbonise our electricity system on the pathway to cutting our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. There is a similar consensus that it is only with carbon capture and storage that coal will continue to play a role in that future. The measures we agreed last year to reform our electricity market are already bringing forward the investment needed to achieve this cost effectively and securely. Against this background we continue to believe that applying the EPS as proposed by this amendment is a potentially risky intervention in the market.

I hope I have gone half way to convincing the noble Baroness that the developments since the Energy Bill was before this House less than a year ago are unlikely to have the impact she assumes and I hope on that basis she will be willing to withdraw her amendment.