Clause 270 - Prohibition of new coal mines

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 20 June 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 271 to 273 stand part.

Government new clause 52—Principal objectives of Secretary of State and GEMA.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero) 11:00, 20 June 2023

I will start with the good news and first speak to clause 271 and Government new clause 52. The Government have maintained the view that Ofgem’s principal objective makes its role in achieving the net zero target clear. However, we have carefully considered the effect of clause 271 with Ofgem and sought legal advice to ensure that the Lords amendments would not impact the hierarchy and intended effect of Ofgem’s duties. We are therefore content to clarify Ofgem’s duties by making specific reference to the net zero target in the Climate Change Act 2008.

The Government new clause is equivalent in substance to clause 271, but includes some minor drafting changes to ensure that the duty works in practice. First, it clarifies the authority’s role in supporting, rather than enabling, the Government to meet their net zero target. Secondly, it clarifies the net zero targets and carbon budgets specific to sections 1 and 4 of the 2008 Act. The new clause does not change the intention of clause 271. I thank my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore for the recommendation in his report entitled “Mission Zero”, Baroness Hayman in the other place and the energy industry for working constructively with the Government to bring forward this significant change.

I now turn to clause 270, which was also added to the Bill in the Lords on Report. The clause would prohibit the opening of new coalmines and extensions to existing coalmining in Great Britain. After carefully considering this addition, I tabled my intention to oppose the clause standing part of the Bill on 17 May. The Government are committed to ensuring that unabated coal has no part to play in future power generation, which is why we are phasing it out of our electricity production by 2024. Coal’s share of our electricity generation has already declined significantly in recent years—from almost 40% in 2012 to around 2% in 2021.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that although, as he rightly says, electricity production by coal has been as little as 1% and huge amounts of work can be done to reduce that carbon dioxide output, it is vital, with electricity generation, to maintain a baseload? As we saw recently when a gas turbine power station was turned off and we were relying on wind power, the baseload could not be maintained and the system tripped out for a large area of the country. Does the Minister agree with me that the objectives are fine, but physics and reality come in at some point?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I could not agree any more wholeheartedly with or put it any better than my right hon. Friend. For energy security reasons, it is vital that we maintain all options that are open to us. That does not in any way impede, get in the way of or stand contrary to our overarching net zero ambition.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

On that point, as the Minister agrees with his colleague, is the Minister saying that he needs to keep coal generation as an option, on the table, beyond the planned phase-out date? Because that is what I just heard.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

No, the planned phase-out date of October 2024 is extant and something that we are working towards. However, it is important that we ensure that, as part of our electricity baseload, we have access to the relevant energy sources so that we ensure this country’s energy security. Given the situation with energy security in central Europe and, indeed, worldwide, that should be understood by everyone.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

If the Government allow the licensing of a new coalmine, how will that help energy security? The Minister has just committed to phasing out the use of unabated coal by October 2024, so, by the time a new coalmine is operational, it certainly will not add any energy security.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

The hon. Gentleman heard my answer to that very point. I do not think I need to labour it much more.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Is the Minister saying that we should have access to those supplies in order to back the system up? And by the way, I do not think that tripping out, which came up a little while ago, was just about coal.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

It was a gas turbine that tripped out. It was not about coal, as far as I understand.

Is the Minister saying that we should have access to those supplies until, but not after, 2024? We will not have anywhere to burn them after 2024 because the intention is to have phased out coal by then. What exactly is the Minister saying? By the way, coal is unlikely to be burned in a UK power establishment in the future, if such establishments survive.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

This is the Energy Bill, so I understand why the focus has been on energy and energy security. However, coal is not just required for energy purposes, and that is another reason why we will vote against the clause.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington

I have a constituency interest in a new coalmine in a neighbouring constituency in west Cumbria. Its planning condition is to produce metallurgical coal, which is used in steel plants. The Minister was recently in Sweden, as I was just a couple of months ago. We hear a lot about HYBRIT—hydrogen breakthrough ironmaking technology—which is a green steel project. I was relieved to hear that HYBRIT requires coking coal, even in electric arc furnaces with direct reduced iron, and that it will continue to be used for some time. Does the Minister agree that we should not close off avenues for UK-sourced coking coal?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. His expertise in the area, his experience in Sweden and his constituency interest have proved invaluable in ensuring that everybody is fully aware of the situation, the technology and, indeed, the science behind all of this.

Even when we phase out coal power stations, domestic demand for coal will continue in industries such as steel, cement and heritage railways, and that demand can be met by domestic resources on existing lines of deployment. A full prohibition of coal extraction, regardless of the circumstances or where that coal is going to be used—be that in steel, cement or a heritage railway—is likely to prevent extensions to existing operational mining, even where an extension would enable site restoration or deliver public safety benefits; cut across heritage mining rights in the Forest of Dean, which are important to its tourism offer; and, importantly, prevent domestic coal extraction projects from progressing that are seeking to supply industries that are still reliant on coal.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

The Minister has set out a series of perceived advantages. On the flipside, the proposed new coalmine at Whitehaven would emit 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, so does he agree that that would have serious implications for our net zero ambitions?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I very much question the figures that the hon. Gentleman has just put to the Committee. I stress that it is really important that we ensure that the industries in the United Kingdom that rely on coal are able to rely on a domestic source for that coal—British coal—and not on imports from overseas, which will actually increase carbon emissions.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Order. May I just point out that some of these interventions are getting a little bit lengthy? We have a whole debate—one other Member has already indicated that she wants to speak—so colleagues can make speeches if they wish.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

I will be brief, Dr Huq. On the Minister’s point, is it not the case that up to 85% of the coke that will be exported to the EU is coming out of coal in Cumbria? Does he agree with the figures of Lord Deben, the chair of the Committee on Climate Change, which state that the new Cumbrian coal mine will emit about 400,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to 200,000 cars being added to the road?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Now I am getting confused, because I have some figures coming from over there and other figures coming from over there. It is important that we ensure that industries that rely on a source of coal are able to rely on domestic sources of coal. This clause, proposed by the Labour party, would prevent that from happening, harm future investment, harm jobs and harm our progress.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

This is one of the most jaw-dropping moments I have ever had in my parliamentary career. The Scottish National party and the Labour party are arguing against domestic jobs, our proud coalmining heritage and energy security for this country. Is that not flabbergasting?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I am actually close to speechless. Labour likes to describe itself as the party of the workers. Well, it is anti-workers, anti-jobs and anti-investment in British industry.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Order. We should not stray too much from the clause.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

That is demonstrated by the clause, and that is why I believe that now is not the right time to make the changes suggested by the Labour party. We will oppose the clause.

Finally, I will address clauses 272 and 273 on community energy, which I also oppose. I recognise that several Members spoke in support of these clauses on Second Reading. However, the Government continue to believe that this is a commercial matter that should be left to suppliers, and further work is needed before considering whether primary legislation is needed.

In evidence submitted to the Committee and published on 13 June, Energy UK set out its in-principle support, much like the Government, for community energy, and recognised the role that it will play in our energy system. However, it asks that

“these measures be removed to give the Government, the regulator, and the industry time to fully consider the best approach to integrating community energy effectively, protecting consumers and preventing additional costs being added to all consumers’ energy bills on behalf of a currently small portion of the population.”

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Does the Minister accept that the wording inserted in the Bill by the Lords reflects the exact same wording of a private Member’s Bill—I think it is the Local Electricity Bill—that more than 120 Conservative MPs previously pledged to support? I checked to see whether any members of the Committee supported that Bill, and apparently the hon. Members for Hyndburn and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine were among those 120 MPs. I think the rest of the Committee gets off the hook on that. Would the Minister like to explain why he has changed his mind?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

The hon. Lady is hearing me explain at great length why the position of the Government is what it is.

Clause 272 seeks a minimum export guarantee scheme. Community energy projects can already access power purchase agreements, which are arrangements for the continuous purchase of power over a given period with market-reflective prices. For example, Younity, a joint venture between Octopus and Midcounties Co-operative, already purchases electricity from more than 200 community groups of all sizes. It has PPAs of varying contract lengths, from six months to five years. Renewable Exchange has also enabled more than 100 community projects to sell electricity via PPAs since 2018.

When we introduced the smart export guarantee, we consciously moved from a consumer-funded subsidy model to a competitive market-based system with cost-reflective pricing. That was in line with the vision to meet our net zero commitments at the lowest net cost to UK taxpayers, consumers and businesses. Introducing a fixed price would be a step backwards, as it requires all energy consumers to pay more than the market price for electricity to subside local communities that benefit from community energy projects. An electricity export guarantee indexed to the wholesale price is inconsistent with the Government’s aim to decouple renewable generation from a wholesale price linked to the marginal cost, usually fossil fuel generation or gas. A static export price could also dampen price signals needed in the system, for example, in the use of intraday batteries.

History suggests that such a support scheme would have only a minimal impact on deployment. For example, deployment of community energy projects over the final five years of the much more generous feed-in tariff subsidy scheme was still very low. These projects are also typically more expensive than larger utility-scale renewable projects, with small solar and onshore wind projects between 50% and 70% more expensive. The proposal would be mandatory for suppliers with more than 150,000 consumers, and would therefore introduce a huge new administrative burden. Suppliers would face the additional one-off costs of putting in place process and IT infrastructure, as well as ongoing costs of managing the scheme, which would be passed on to consumers in higher bills. It is likely that it will disproportionately impact smaller suppliers, sitting just above the 150,000 customer threshold.

Similarly, on clause 273 it is the Government’s view that a local tariff is unlikely to result in a better price for consumers. Suppliers would incur potentially significant costs in setting up and delivering the scheme. They would also have to recoup the additional costs, which we anticipate would be via the service fee and would therefore be recoverable only from local consumers. A small-scale low-carbon generator is also unlikely to guarantee a supply of electricity to local consumers at all times. Suppliers would have to buy additional wholesale energy to cover all local consumer demand, while continuing to charge for all other supply costs incurred. The local tariff would also need to reflect the export price paid to the generator. Presumably that is intended to ensure that local consumers benefit from cheaper export prices, but it would create an unintended outcome whereby higher export prices benefit the generator and increase the tariff price.

I hope that I have explained at length why I, as the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, am espousing this position. I reassure the Committee that I am working with my officials to explore what other credible options are available to support the community energy sector. Indeed, work continues as we speak. We are taking these issues seriously, but for the reasons that I have provided I will oppose the clauses.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

The Minister says that he is working with his officials, but assuming that the Government majority on the Committee will reject clauses 272 and 273, what opportunity is there for mechanisms to be introduced to support local energy?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

As much as I know that we are all aghast at the thought of the Committee finishing and the Bill going back to the House, that will not be the end of our journey together. We will gather again on Report and Third Reading, so there will be ample opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to speak on the Bill at that stage, and for any changes that might be required to it.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

There is a drop-in session in room Q in Portcullis House at noon, but it is entirely voluntary.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.