Thursday, April 06, 2006

Wicks explains the Energy Review to the Lords

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on the Energy Review on 29 March.

Mostly, the honourable Lords were not terribly well informed, as, say, the Environment Committee is. Nevertheless some interesting points arose.

Nuclear power

Wicks said: "I think the question about future civil nuclear is one that we can make a judgment on by the summer in the full knowledge that soon there will be a specific judgment on the outcome of Quorum."

In other words the judgement on nuclear power's future in the energy review will precede the report on what we should do about nuclear waste, and Wicks said he is happy with that.

There was also a slip of the tongue:

He said: "My own view about [nuclear power] is that, in terms of nuclear waste, it will be difficult to have a reasoned public
debate until we can convince public and Parliament that we have an answer, as it were, a strategy for dealing with a legacy of nuclear waste. Part one of that strategy is the work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency."

Note that he said "until" not "unless", which is the word a dispassionate party would have used. And the giveaway that there is a strategy to 'convince' the public (his definition of a "reasoned public debate"), and it is proceeding. The NDA report, now out, says it is possible to deal with the waste, but Quorum - the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) - in its interim report, has not been able to find a solution.

Is the strategy then to sideline Quorum and instead make the NDA's report the authoritative one for the Energy Review by having the Review conclusion before Quorum's?

Nuclear power in Westminster?

There was a joke - but maybe it should be serious - about the siting of nuclear power stations:

"In Sweden," the Chairman said, "they have made the mistake of putting their nuclear power plants in remote locations where, in effect, they have to waste 40 per cent of heat, whereas in France the power stations are put close to towns and villages where the heat is efficiently used."

Malcolm Wicks: "It does raise wider issues about public opinion and the siting of nuclear power stations, however. It may be sensible to have one in Westminster, but that may be controversial."

No, the Low Carbon Kid thinks that if they believe in the technology, why, then they should install one in, say, Westminster Palace's cellar.

The Renewables Obligation subsidy is about one billion pounds

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff asked: "Can you give me some idea what the Government’s estimate is of the current cost to consumers of the Renewables Obligation?"

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I think by 2010 the Renewables Obligation, in a sense the subsidy there for these industries, is about one billion pounds.

When pressed on the idea that electricity bills should indicate the amount of the subsidy to consumers, he said "I think also myself that we need to bring down some of these extraordinarily large CO2 statistics globally down to almost a household level so that each of us has some understanding of how we are part of the problem when it comes carbon dioxide emissions and how we can begin to become part of the solution, maybe with microgeneration, and, we launched the strategy paper on that yesterday, by energy efficiency measures.

"The Chancellor found some money to help us develop the concept of smart metering, so that instead of the very old-fashioned meters, which do not seem to have changed for many decades, so far as I can tell, you would have a smart meter that would begin to tell you much more about your energy use and abuse and the CO2 you are using, what your wind turbine was contributing.

"I think there is quite a development really where our supply companies, instead of just selling us gas and electricity and billing us, and so on, and reading the meter occasionally, start to become energy services companies. I think we need to develop that idea."

This is very good news. It has worked well in Italy.

Tidal lagoons

Wicks said: "I am advised - it has suddenly come to my mind - that tidal lagoons are technically feasible, they are a well understood technology, and that they are eligible for the Renewables Obligation."

Wicks confessed to being ignorant of the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon.

A 2004 independent report from leading engineering firm, WS Atkins Engineering shows that the low-head hydroelectric technology, developed by Tidal Electric Limited, is "ready to make a huge contribution to the government's 2010 emissions reduction and will be the UK's most competitive renewable power source producing electricity at 3.4p per kilowatt-hour from the relatively small (60 MW) Swansea Bay project".

It is backed by environmental campaigners, who welcomed the Atkin's study but warned that "continued reticence from the DTI in supporting the concept could result in the UK once more lagging behind rather than leading the world in this new environmental technology".

If Wicks is ignorant of it, developers Tidal Electric need to do some work!

A 2005 Ofgem report said that, notwithstanding the high degree of uncertainty surrounding marine technologies, the ‘best estimate’ of the evolution of unit costs for the five marine technologies are that the estimated base case current unit equivalent annual cost (EAC) for onshore wind is around £41/MWh, £62/MWh for off-shore wind, £60/MWh for tidal lagoons and £187/MWh for both wave and tidal stream technologies. In other words tidal lagoons are cheaper than offshore windfarms. These are central estimates for a ‘typical’ project and actual costs will vary significantly around these central estimates.

In the same conversation with the Lords, was the following exchange:

Lord Howie of Troon: Is Professor Salter’s floating duck still alive, is it dead, or what about it?

Malcolm Wicks: I do not know about the floating duck.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: It is an earlier generation, I have to say. It is some years ago.

Lord Flowers: It was the first generation of these things.

Salters Duck is a cautionary tale it would be well to repeat here so Mr Wicks is aware of it.
It was a highly promising wave energy device in the Seventies. A DTI study at the time was done by individuals who for their own reasons did not wish to see the technology pursued and moved a decimal point in the economics calculation, making it seem hopelessly uneconomic. Despite many protests this was not changed for many years. The UK thus missed out on being a leader much earlier in this exciting technology.

Is the DTI about to make a similar mistake twice?


Paul McIntyre, heading the team of civil servants from across Whitehall undertaking the Energy Review, said that "the Government is intending to publish a response to all the recommendations of the Biomass Taskforce Report - and I think there were something like 40 recommendations - by around the end of April, so there will be a comprehensive cross-government response to that report at that stage.

"Referring back to the Climate Change Programme Review whose conclusions were announced yesterday, that included a new fund of £10-15 million to be spent over the next two years - this is new funding for biomass heat projects - and renewable heat will also be supported through the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, which received an extra £50 million in the Chancellor’s Budget."

Energy from waste

He was asked about the comprehensiveness of the ER's report in that the consultation paper makes no mention, for example, of energy from waste.

He replied: "It is certainly something that we would want to look at. One is greeted, of course, in energy policy by a range of mechanisms and technologies. Sir Ben Gill’s report on biomass talked about waste as an aspect of biomass, so that review is obviously feeding into our own thinking."

District heating

Lord Patel said "My question relates to heat and the development of district and community heating schemes. What steps the is the Government taking to encourage development of such schemes, particularly in the context of new housing development?"

Malcolm Wicks replied: "I think it is interesting and also slightly disappointing that, despite concepts like district heating and combined heat and power being around now, not just as ideas but as practice, for several decades, we have not seen more development of that.

"There has been a Community Energy Programme that has been looking at community heating. I am advised that the Defra programme was not extended because it produced fewer outputs than anticipated.

"In the Climate Change Review things are said about community heating projects, and the Energy Saving Trust, the Carbon Trust are also interested in this development and we will look at it as part of the review. It seems to me one of those kind of commonsense ideas really in terms of combined heat and power that, as I say, has been rather disappointing in terms of its progress.


Wicks gave the impression that the way was being paved for owners of small renewable generators, who currently cannot claim their subsidies - Renewable Obligation Certificates, or ROCs - because they are too small to meet the crietria, to be able to in future.

He said "I think the issue of ROCs is because if the householder, the church, the mosque, the temple, the school, the library, the small business is going to have some microgeneration about it and it should be eligible for ROCs."

"Indeed, if it can produce enough energy, as is not impossible - if a school, for example, such as the Ashburton Learning Village, a new school in my borough of Croydon with its photovoltaics - you could imagine them in the summer holidays producing a lot of electricity, the children are not there being taught, and you could sell it back to the grid. It is important that supply companies are encouraged and, indeed, forced to offer a price to the micro-generators."

Forced, eh? Now there's fighting talk.

>> The minutes

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