Parliament

Making Britain a Clean Energy Superpower

Published date : 09 November, 2023
Will the Secretary of State tell us how much the UK’s offshore floating energy capacity will increase by as a result of the licensing round that has just closed?

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My hon. Friend is making a marvellous speech pointing out the shortcomings of the Government’s approach to accelerating renewables and to the barriers onshore. Does he, as I do, detect the remnants of an anti-growth coalition living on among those on the Conservative Front Bench?

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I thank the hon. Member for giving way. In his haste to castigate the SNP for presumptions against oil and gas, will he not at least have the intellectual honesty to recognise that in the climate change compatibility checkpoints, his own Government are introducing a presumption against further development, no matter how weak and feeble that presumption might seem to anyone with a care for the subject?

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It is a pleasure to speak in a debate about energy, because it feeds into the most pressing crisis that all our constituents face at this point in time: the cost of living crisis. We know that higher interest rates are not the answer to the inflation they face. Brexit has certainly made things a great deal worse by increasing the cost of imports, but the cost of living crisis has at its core the massive increase that we have seen in the cost of energy. That taps into our energy security and, as we have heard, it taps into the climate crisis, but it also taps into the opportunities for economic transformation as we industrialise—at least, we have the opportunity to industrialise —through the green revolution.

The Government seem to be failing to provide answers in this area. I agree with the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—words that I do not say very often—that I cannot think of a Government, certainly in my lifetime, who have been so ill suited to facing up to the challenges of the era we all face. No matter how graciously it happened to be delivered, the King’s Speech revealed that we have a Government who are not guided by principle, by strategy or by science, whether woke or otherwise. Instead, they appear to have made a lifestyle choice—if I can put it that way—to be guided by the whims of a few hundred voters in Uxbridge, where they squeaked a very narrow by-election victory, in the vain hope that by pandering on the issues that they thought brought them success in that corner of suburban London, they might find a wedge issue that will allow them to progress in the culture war they are waging against everyone in the UK except their core supporters, to try to protect them from the electoral wrecking ball that appears to be coming their way with increasing force and momentum.

To genuinely be a clean energy superpower, three things are needed. First and foremost, we need an energy market that works. We also need a genuine energy transition, not one that just pays lip service to the idea, and we need Governments who are prepared to invest in making that happen. On the first point—having energy markets that work—one of the reasons we have heard for energy bills being so high is the artificial link mandated by Government between the price of electricity and the price of gas, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned in her substantive contribution. That completely distorts the market, artificially inflating the cost of electricity, which hits both industry and consumers hard.

Another reason why our electricity markets do not work is the inadequacy of not just the energy grid, but grid pricing, particularly when it comes to electricity. That means that anybody generating electricity in the north of Scotland pays a subsidy for the privilege of feeding it into the grid, whereas the further south we go in the UK, generally speaking, that turns into a subsidy for the generator. We are left with the utterly ludicrous situation of somebody who wishes to promote a wind farm in the north of Scotland having to pay handsomely to get that energy into the grid, whereas if they were able to reactivate Battersea power station and burn coal in it, they would end up with a subsidy because of the locational pricing structure we have. That is an absolute nonsense. I can see the brows being beetled feverishly on the Government Benches; I encourage Members to think on that, because it is the situation that the national grid pricing structure has given us for years, and it is holding Scotland back.

Turning to the storage of energy, the UK foolishly did away with most of its storage capacity for gas, on the flawed assumption that it would always be able to buy gas whenever it was needed at the price that was right. We have seen the folly of that in recent times, but of course, it is not just gas storage that is important; we need the means of storing electricity, whether through electrolysis at peak times to generate hydrogen that can be stored and released back into the energy system at other times, the greater use of batteries on an industrial scale, or using pumped storage hydroelectric power. I should confess a particular interest in pumped storage hydropower, because my father was an engineer at Cruachan power station in Argyle, and that is where he met my mother. If it was not for that pumped storage power station in Scotland, I would not be here, so I put that interest on the record. [Laughter.]

There are proposals to double the capacity at Cruachan power station, and to develop a very large pumped storage facility at Coire Glas. It is the regulatory role of the UK Government in those projects, or the oversight they have, that will decide whether or not they go ahead. I encourage the Minister—it might be worth her listening to this—to make progress on those projects, because that is one of the ways in which we will deal with the fluctuations of renewable energy to meet the baseload requirement.

That takes me to my second point, which is on how to be a clean energy superpower. We need a genuine energy transition, and that starts with a bit of basic honesty about the role that oil and gas need to play. The unlimited extraction of oil and gas is simply not compatible with our climate obligations. However, we also need to recognise that, even if there was not a pressing climate change catastrophe looming, our domestic capacity is in long-term decline. Any new licences that are issued and actually come to fruition are only going to slow the rate of overall decline, and we need to be making an impact where we really can, which is in licensing new renewables.

The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) gently chided us about playing politics on this issue. I must say that I always enjoy it very much when the Conservatives decide not to play politics with energy, particularly when it comes to the debate in Scotland. While it is tempting to say that the Labour party now appears to have the policy on oil and gas that the Scottish Conservatives have long accused my party of having, we really need to raise the debate from that level.

In an exchange with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), I pointed out the Conservative policy that dare not speak its name: the Government’s own presumption against further oil and gas development. It prompts the question that if any new oil and gas developments do not meet their tests, what then happens? My presumption would be that they fail, and I understand that also to be the presumption of the Government.

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I am not sure I am any the wiser after that intervention. Either a development passes or it fails, and presumably if it fails, it does not go ahead. I will leave the hon. Gentleman to dance on the head of that particular pin.

On the Government deciding to license new fields, we need to recognise that not all of those licences will be taken up and not all of them will produce any significant amount, so when it comes to mitigating where we are, renewables are the only way forward. That is the way to lock in low prices for the future and the way to guarantee energy security.

The Secretary of State, who is now back in her place, was good enough to take an intervention from me, just as she was reaching a rhetorical zenith about floating offshore wind. The answer to my question, which she quite understandably chose not to give, is that the last round of floating offshore wind options would increase capacity by absolutely nothing because not a single bid came in. The reason for that is embarrassing. It yielded absolutely no bids because the price was wrong. The industry told the Government that, and the UK Government persisted in thinking that they knew best. The auction, rather predictably, fell flat on its face, and the result of that auction round was that the increase in offshore wind capacity was net zero.

The final point I wish to make is on the need to invest in making this happen. We need to learn the lesson that future oil and gas can only slow the rate of decline, and that we need to be doing much better in incentivising the technologies of the future. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid a visit to the Moray East offshore wind farm, he made a predictably vacuous and facetious remark, saying that Margaret Thatcher was a green pioneer through her virtual destruction of the coal industry. Just as we know there was no just transition for the miners, it looks unlikely that there is a just transition planned for steelworkers who may be affected by recent announcements. We need to make absolutely sure that there is a just transition for the oil and gas sector, but it does not look as though there is anything in prospect from anything the Government are planning, other than that it will be everybody for themselves.

That is in stark contrast to the approach of the Scottish Government, who have earmarked £500 million exclusively to aid the transition, onshore and off, in the north-east of Scotland. That sum is equivalent to the amount that both the Scottish and the UK Governments are putting into the Aberdeen city region deal. The failure —the repeated failure—of the UK Government to match that is not only, I believe, a betrayal of the communities of the north-east of Scotland, but a complete abrogation of the UK’s constitutional and moral responsibilities.

I shall wrap up. What was needed was a King’s Speech that delivered on the means by which we would achieve energy security, that tackled the climate crisis and that delivered the potential for economic transformation, as well as giving relief to hard-pressed energy users. The evidence is that this is not going to happen in Westminster, and it should be devolved. We should be independent, which would be a better place for Scotland to be, so that we can get on with taking the right decisions for the right reasons, off the back of our own decisions mandated by the electorate of Scotland.

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