Brexit: Energy Security (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 6th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 8:01 pm, 6th June 2018

My Lords, as a member of the sub-committee, I add my congratulations to those offered by other noble Lords to my noble friend Lord Teverson on his skilful chairmanship on this complex topic and to the clerks on excelling themselves in drawing together all the threads that make up this informative report.

Brexit is a far more traumatic experience than the joy-filled journey to sunlit uplands that was sold to the public. Your Lordships’ House has been instrumental in adding some realism to preparing for the journey through the painstaking work of the EU Select Committee, which has produced reports of depth and quality on the opportunities and challenges that Brexit presents.

I have been a member of this committee while it has conducted several Brexit inquiries, including on the impact of Brexit on agriculture, fisheries, farm animal welfare and environment and climate change. It is clear to me that, of the sectors that the committee has inquired into to date, the arrangements that we currently enjoy within the EU with respect to energy security are those from which the UK reaps the largest benefit.

The energy market is ferociously complex. The finely-tuned balance that our membership of the internal energy market brings, to our advantage, was recognised by all expert witnesses to this inquiry, including by the Minister, Mr Harrington, who more than once in his evidence session stated that,

“our top priority is to be as near as possible to the current arrangements”.

That was also brought up by my colleague on the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk. We are hearing more and more that the Government are seeking “business as usual”, which is a real giveaway, because it gives us a clue that light is dawning that the deal we have forged over the decades within the EU is as good as it gets, allowing us to have our cake and eat it. Given that the Minister agrees that close association with the IEN is where we would like to end up, why are we setting red lines that could jeopardise our retaining the benefits of the IEM? In what alternative universe does this make any sense?

My contribution to this debate will focus on the cost of electricity, because energy security is as much about cost to those who do not have much money as about availability for the rest of us. Electricity markets in the UK, Ireland and continental Europe are physically linked by interconnector cables. Interconnectors are critical in ensuring a stable and secure energy system. They help integrate renewable electricity by smoothing out peaks and troughs across the EU, which is a key requirement if we are to meet our climate change commitments. The more we move towards renewables, the more important interconnectors become.

Crucially, interconnectors also offer lower costs to both system operators and consumers. While there was general agreement among witnesses that even in a no deal scenario we are unlikely to see tariffs on electricity, it is also clear that no longer being a part of the IEM would likely make electricity trading less efficient and more costly, as GB interconnectors could be excluded from current and future market coupling mechanisms—my noble friend Lord Teverson has already touched on this.

Market coupling is a mechanism by which IEM participants use a shared algorithm to arrange cross-border electricity trades by matching supply and demand efficiently. Research commissioned by the National Grid suggested that being excluded from market coupling and other balancing mechanisms could cost the GB system £260 million per annum. Energy UK expressed concern that GB operators could be excluded from market coupling if we were to leave the IEM without replacement arrangements,

“as there are no provisions in the texts for ‘third countries’”.

This was reinforced by His Excellency Jean-Christophe Füeg, head of international energy affairs at the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, who has already been quoted extensively today. He told us that Switzerland is excluded from market coupling despite a large, mutually beneficial energy trading relationship with the EU. I mention the testimony given by His Excellency because it underscores the importance of political considerations, which often supersede pure market considerations when it comes to dealing with the EU.

The cost of electricity is something I wish to focus on, so I will say a few words about interconnectors. At the moment, interconnectors supply 7% of the UK’s electricity. Another 14 gigawatts of capacity is either in preconstruction or at various planning stages, expected to become operational between 2019 and 2022. We are told that each 1 gigawatt of new supply through interconnectors could reduce Britain’s wholesale price of electricity by 1% to 2%. Clearly, the impact of this in terms of cheaper costs for consumers, ranging from 14 to 28%, is not lightly to be put in jeopardy; it would be negligent of any Government to do so. Yet this is what we are playing with when we toy with leaving the EEA: we are risking higher energy costs for those least likely to be able to afford them. NEA has warned that,

“the UK leaving the EU could … badly impact the people who struggle to keep their homes adequately warm”.

In response to the report’s recommendation 4, asking government to conduct and publish an assessment of the impact of leaving the IEM on the price paid by consumers for their energy and to take steps to mitigate this impact, particularly for financially vulnerable customers, the Government outlined a number of measures to help consumers manage their bills. Can the Minister give an assurance that no one, but especially those on minimum wage or on benefits, will have to pay more for energy as a consequence of us leaving the EU? Like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I live in no expectation of receiving any such confirmation from the Minister, but it may be a matter that we can come back to once the consequences of Brexit, whatever shape it may take, unfold.

I hope that the Minister will recognise, nevertheless, the value to the poorest in society of the UK being a meaningful member, with a meaningful seat at the table, of an energy market that is designed to achieve lower costs for its members—designed, in large part, through substantial UK input.