Report (2nd Day)

Part of Energy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:59 pm on 21st October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Worthington Baroness Worthington Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 6:59 pm, 21st October 2015

My Lords, I reassure the Minister that this is not a matter on which I intend to seek the opinion of the House. It is an issue which I believe we need to discuss in the context of an Energy Bill, but I hope that a discussion can be had outside the Chamber. I just wanted to alert the House to the issue because it is materially relevant to the energy policy as it is being played out.

One pillar of the Energy Act 2013 was the introduction of a new support mechanism to help fund extra capacity in the market, designed to complement the contracts being signed for low carbon. It is a very detailed policy with many aspects.

It has come to my attention that the annual auctions of new capacity under the capacity mechanism are bringing forward rather a lot of applications for 15-year contracts from distributed, very small-scale generating plant. Many of those plants are diesel-powered and many others are open-cycle gas turbines of a small scale which are much less efficient than the full-scale CCGTs that are normally built for capacity.

The amendment was tabled to enable us to have a debate on the Floor of the House on an issue which is time-critical, because the next auction will take place in December. Three gigawatts’ worth of small generating plant are prequalified. That is on top of a number of megawatts that were granted in the previous auction that took place last year. So my fear is that, over time, we are starting to see a substantial amount of distributed thermal energy coming forward under the capacity mechanism. Of course, the capacity mechanism creates an incentive to new-build. Having read the Government’s gas strategy, I believe that the Government intended those 15-year contracts to be made available to larger-scale, very efficient, state-of-the-art gas turbines to be there as back-up and to provide us with base-load power. Instead of that, we are seeing coming forward, as a result of significant market distortion, investment in much smaller kit that is far less efficient and much more polluting. The danger is that this drift towards distributed diesel generators and open-cycle gas will significantly affect our ability to decarbonise.

One argument that will be made will be that such generators are there just to catch the peaks and will not operate more than that. However, there is nothing in government policy or legislation that prevents them operating for far longer periods. My fear is that, because of the scale of these plants, they will not be paying a carbon price: they are not subject to the EU carbon price, nor are they subject to the Government’s carbon price support mechanism which tops up the EU price. That is a significant distortion that we should be mindful of. Markets are nothing if not efficient and nothing if not good at finding loopholes. It will be an unintended consequence of the capacity mechanism rules as they are currently drafted that this will be the market’s answer to our capacity issues.

I visit my mother-in-law in India. Building an energy system in which diesel generators are providing back-up is not a modern-economy solution. There are many other ways to provide safe and reliable power. We should not rely on diesel generation, which is much more what you would find in developing countries that have fewer options and are not able to deliver secure and stable supplies of electricity. We have been doing that for decades and have a world-class grid that enables us to do it. So we are concerned that while we are not letting contracts for clean power, we are continuing to let contracts for traditional fossil-fuelled power, and that there is this loophole in the capacity mechanism rules which allows a far greater volume than anyone would have anticipated of small distributed diesel generators.

In addition to paying no carbon price, such generators also have very loose air quality standards applied to them—far looser than are applied to larger plant. I do not need to bring the House’s attention to the fact that we have had a rather high-profile problem with diesel in the past few months. “Dieselgate” and VW’s cheating on the standards is a serious issue which helps to explain why we might be struggling to hit our legally binding air quality standards in the European Union, because if everyone is cheating it is no wonder that our emissions are higher than we thought they should be according to our inventory calculations. So we have an air quality issue; in fact, the Government have been taken to court over their failure to comply with those air quality standards. Having a large number of distributed diesel generators operating potentially for long periods through the winter months will not do anything to alleviate our air quality problems. There is a definite correlation between exposure to the particulates that emerge from diesel and ill-health, especially in younger and older people. So, not just for climate reasons but for air quality reasons, we should not allow a huge proliferation of this very inefficient and very polluting smaller generating plant—and that we should be giving them 15-year contracts really concerns me.

We know that all Governments in the UK hold as sacrosanct the fact that if you sign a contract with the private sector, you will not then go back on it. That is a tenet that we hold dear in order to preserve our investor credibility. Once those contracts are signed, there will be nothing we can do for 15 years, which worries me greatly. I am not expecting a full and detailed response from the Minister today; I hope that I can just convey the reason for my concern. I hope that I will hear some reassurance that the department is alive to this problem, that it is indeed seen as an unintended consequence and a loophole, and that we are not simply saying, “Ah, well, that’s what the market’s delivering”. That is not sufficient, especially as there are distortions in relation to carbon and not paying the carbon price, and especially in relation to air quality.

Amendment 78V would therefore require that any fossil fuel-generating plant granted a 15-year capacity contract under the capacity mechanism created under the Energy Act 2013 would be subject to a carbon price, so that the Government would apply a taxation policy to such plant; that such plant would be required to fit best-available technology to mitigate air pollutants; and that the Government’s emissions performance standard as was introduced in the Act would apply as well, which would act as a constraint and a break on the number of hours that such stations could run—it would not be a full answer to the problem because it would still allow them to run for considerable periods, but certainly it would not allow them to run unimpeded for an entire year.

Given the position of leadership that the UK rightly enjoys in terms of our sensible policies for decarbonisation and our Climate Change Act, the idea that the energy policy in front of us should lead to us relying on diesel generators fills me with alarm. I hope that we can do something collectively, across all sides of the House, to address this issue before the contracts are signed in December. I think that I have said enough. I do not wish to detain the House any further and I look forward to hearing a response from the Government.