We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Renewable Energy - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 5th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Conservative 6:21 pm, 5th June 2019

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for initiating this important debate. It is important because it has to be worth exploring any form of power generation that harnesses natural resources to provide baseload power, so long as any potential harm to the environment can be mitigated. I was particularly interested to hear more about offshore tidal lagoons: £82 per megawatt hour for 25 years is more than competitive for a nascent technology. The trick has always been to develop a technology that is scalable and commercially viable.

Tidal power has been of particular interest to me because for 40 years, I have lived in the hope that Wales will be the first country to discover how to harness the power of the sea to generate our power. After all, we have the largest tidal range in the world bar one: the Bay of Fundy in Canada—I have always wanted that to be a Trivial Pursuit question. We have been talking about this for so long without coming to a resolution. Maybe that is just the way of the modern world; in the 1950s, it took less than five years to move from a few lightbulbs powered by nascent nuclear fission technology to the first output from a commercial-scale nuclear power facility.

In 1978, I wrote a dissertation as part of my IB at Atlantic College on the costs and benefits of generating power in the Severn estuary. Sadly, my younger self threw it out, not realising its future potential as a resource, but I remember concluding even then that the environmental impact of the proposed barrage did not seem to justify either the amount of power that it would generate or the cost of its construction. In time, the latter might have been mitigated if turbines had been integrated within the structure of the Second Severn Crossing, or the Prince of Wales Bridge as it is now called. We were also in an era when North Sea gas reserves were lulling us all into a false sense of energy security.

In common with many, I was disappointed that the Government did not follow the recommendations of the Hendry review. I was disappointed for Swansea given the regeneration that a large infrastructure project of this nature would inspire, as well as jobs in the supply chain, tourism and scientific innovation. However, even I recognised that the required subsidy of £305 per megawatt hour meant that it probably did not make a lot of commercial sense initially. But it could have provided proof of concept. As the Hendry report indicated, promising innovations and technological advances could have been made as part of a tidal lagoon programme that might have helped drive costs down. As it is, it joins the long list of potential investments that have been described as Wales’ artists’ impressions.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned, exciting new technology which can operate in slow-current water is being trialled by Minesto off the coast of Holyhead in north Wales. This “deep green” system operates a tethered kite-shaped turbine, its 12-metre wing carrying a turbine, generator and control system attached to a concrete cable between 80 and 120 metres long, and flies on the hydrodynamic lift provided by slow tidal currents.

The company believes that, in time, the power generated from this site alone could power more than 60,000 households. It is quick to install. The company began installation in May 2018 and, in October, successfully generated electricity. All this was achieved with private capital and only €13 million of investment from the European regional investment fund through the Welsh European Funding Office. It is an encouraging development. In comparison, in 2003, with the support of the then DTI, The Engineering Business Ltd designed, built and installed the world’s first full-scale tidal stream generator, a 150-kilowatt Stingray generator, in Yell Sound in the Shetlands. It had no significant environmental impact, but the power it produced was surprisingly intermittent, the cost of the technology was high, and installation and maintenance difficult. It was also generating power in an area where demand was low and the cost of transmitting it to the grid high. The project was terminated. Technology has indeed moved on.

How do we encourage the private sector to invest in renewable energy? It is estimated that the UK has reached the point where huge new investment in power generation is needed, up to £350 billion by 2030, to keep the power system in a fit state—not just in terms of low-carbon technologies.

The problem is one of trust and timescale. In most commodity markets, scarcity of supply drives up prices, which in turn attracts capital investment to generate increased profits. This has not happened either here or in the rest of Europe, where power stocks are one of the worst-performing sectors. Distrust between the political and industrial communities has not encouraged investment in a field where the period between the emergence of a new technology and its commercial exploitation can be measured in decades. Set against a political cycle of four to five years, this is not surprising.

The Energy Act 2013 introduced CfDs, the long-term guaranteed price for output that was designed to find a strike price sufficiently attractive to potential investors to finance low-carbon new build but low enough to be acceptable to government and consumers. In the case of new nuclear and tidal, this has manifestly not been enough.

The Government need to take that leap of faith by supporting the new schemes that have followed on from Swansea, which promise greater efficiencies and lower costs than the original. The same will be true of battery technology, small modular nuclear reactors and even an Iceland interconnector. To do that, we need strong leadership from government, common sense from the Green movement and confidence among the scientific community that they be allowed to operate in a healthy, supportive environment. While we cannot take the politics out of energy, the current buzzword is compromise. Without that, we shall never produce the mix of technologies that is necessary to meet our energy needs.