It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am delighted to have secured this topical and important debate. I fear that other distractions in the House might limit the number of participants, but I am pleased that hon. Members have taken the time to attend. It is particularly important as we debate the Energy Bill, which will shape our country’s energy profile for decades to come, as well as the emerging biomass industry and the entire UK renewable sector.
My constituency is home to two of the country’s largest coal-fired power stations, Drax and Eggborough; I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Between them, they supply 11% to 12% of the UK’s electricity supply or, to put it in terms that most people would understand, enough power for 9 million homes. They are essential national assets, with the flexibility to provide dispatchable electricity—electricity when it is needed—which is critical to the nation’s security of supply. Both stations have well-developed plans to convert some or all of their generating units to burn sustainable biomass over the next few years.
It is crucial to appreciate the difference between biomass and biofuels, which one or two journalists who have written articles recently do not seem to understand. Arguments laying concerns about the destruction of rain forests at the feet of the biomass energy industry are simply inappropriate and wrong and have no part in the biomass industry either now or in future. Those arguments relate to liquid biofuels, which should not be confused with solid state biomass, which has robust sustainability criteria. To imply that protected rain forest wood can be used for power generation is simply wrong. Woody biomass, which is made into the more energy-dense and transport-efficient pelleted form used as fuel by stations such as Drax and Eggborough, is sourced mainly from residues, thinnings and less marketable wood, which is not of sufficient quality to be used for other, higher-value applications.
Bioenergy is a relatively new market, and the demand is welcomed by those in the hard-pressed global forest products industry, particularly where more traditional markets are in decline, as it provides the additional income that they need to continue investing in sustainable forestry management. Growing and harvesting trees provides family-supporting jobs for millions of men and women. Aside from the economic and social aspects, work in forests brings environmental benefits.
I will focus on the role of biomass in UK energy security. I know that energy security is a subject close to everybody’s heart, including that of the Energy Minister. The regulator Ofgem’s recent warning of a capacity crunch—we could have a capacity margin of only 4% as early as 2015—should set alarm bells ringing. It could have disastrous impacts on the cost and reliability of electricity for consumers, particularly the fuel-poor and businesses that are already struggling to remain competitive. Due to other regulations, approximately 12 GW of existing coal and oil-fired plant will be retired. One third of our coal-fired generation will close by 2016, and potentially more in the second half of this decade as further legislation and taxes start to bite.
In readiness for the impact of the closures, there is an urgent need to bridge the capacity gap. Even given the welcome announcement yesterday concerning Hinkley Point, new nuclear projects will not start generating until the 2020s, nor will offshore wind on any scale. Consequently, the low-cost solution of converting our existing coal-fired grid-connected plants to renewable, sustainable biomass can and should play an important role in keeping the lights on in the short to medium term.
In the next few weeks, Drax will convert its first unit to burn sustainable biomass rather than coal, and within the next few years, three of Drax’s six units will have been converted to burn sustainable biomass. I welcome the recent announcement in the Budget that £500 million will be invested in carbon capture and storage at Drax, in partnership with Alstom. The news is incredibly welcome in my constituency, and we look forward to seeing how the trial works. I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for all their efforts to ensure that Drax had the project.