Energy Bill – Bishop of Chester on renewable energy amendments

14.03 Bishop of ChesterOn 21st October 2015 the Rt Revd Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, spoke a number of times during the report stage debate of the Government’s Energy Bill. The Bishop spoke to amendments relating to the future of Onshore wind power and the closure of the renewables obligation.

Clause 66: Onshore wind power: closure of renewables obligation on 31 March 2016

The Bishop spoke twice during debate on the Government’s amendment 78B: Clause 66, page 38, line 5, leave out subsection (1). The amendment was part of a series that would, in the minister’s words, “amend the Bill to introduce the proposed grace period criteria for the early closure policy, as outlined in the Secretary of State’s announcement on 18 June” and “introduces a new provision into the Electricity Act 1989 to implement the early closure of the policy.”

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth responded for the Government to the points raised by the Bishop.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I did not speak in Committee, although I attended it, partly because I found almost a sense of the ground moving under my feet as all the amendments were produced. This, of course, was a recommittal in Committee under these clauses. At the end of the debate, the clauses were removed. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who referred to “liquid legislation”. There is a phenomenon emerging in the Church of England called “liquid worship”. I can only say that when I am told that that is what I am to expect on a Sunday when I go to a parish, my heart does not leap with joy at what might be in prospect for me.

In Committee, I began by thinking that the Government had done a deal with the industry through withdrawing the clauses and bringing them back in the recommitted meeting of the Grand Committee. But then I listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. If Members of the House think that we have just heard a tour de force, they were not there in Committee, which saw an even greater tour de force, complemented in a different style by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.

The noble Lord refers to the need to “draw a line”. He mentioned that phrase five or six times in his contribution. The problem is that the line was drawn at March 2017. It is a redrawing of the line by the Government which has put us into this situation and raised the question of how one does it in a way that is reasonably fair all round given the complexities of the planning process which have been so well described.

At this stage, I simply ask: what are the real benefits of this liquid legislation, which may prove to be even more liquid in the coming weeks and months? What savings will be made by trying to redraw the line from March 2017 to a date somewhat in advance of that? As I understand it, it is a somewhat moving and shifting date. What is the game worth? Given the vast subsidies that are being paid out over coming years for wind turbines, what will the savings be in comparison with those subsidies that are being paid out?

I must emphasise that I speak as someone who has been critical of that subsidy regime from the beginning. As some noble Lords will know, I was a founding trustee with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which seeks to scrutinise policy from that perspective. I sometimes say that my real title here is that I am chaplain to HMS “Lawson”, although I do not speak with the authority of the captain. I would be interested to know what the anticipated saving is and whether the game is really worth the candle, given the complexity that has emerged.


 

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The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I realise that this is Report, but I would like to press the question I put in my intervention. When all is done and dusted—leaving aside the allegations of ideology on all sides—in relation to all the subsidies that are likely to be paid out for wind turbines in the next 25 years, what proportion of that will be saved by this activity?


 

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: My Lords, I do not know the proportion, but I know that the upper end of the limit is £270 million over the period. That might seem like a small amount, but it is not a small amount to me and I am not sure it would be to anyone else. We have this basic difference, and with that I oppose these amendments.


 

Amendment 78B agreed.

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The Bishop spoke twice during debate on amendment 78Q.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth responded for the Government to the points raised by the Bishop.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, as I listened to this debate, I had one of those “Doctor Who” moments. You go into the TARDIS and it looks like a describable area, but it becomes bigger and bigger—each time someone speaks, you go into another room. There is a narrower issue about Clause 66 and that is fairness. I am one of those who regret that the level of subsidy for wind turbines has been as big as it has, and I am keen to get it closed as soon as possible. I am with the Government on that, but they have moved the deadline from March 2017 to March 2016 and then only given way to some extent. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said that those who had expended significant amounts of money when the deadline was March 2017 had a reasonable or legitimate expectation. If the legislation goes through as it is now, will there be the possibility of judicial review for those who have spent considerable amounts of money but whose legitimate expectations were not fulfilled because the Government changed their mind? I would like reassurance that there is no legal problem in moving the goal posts when people have expended money under the old drawing-out of the pitch.


 

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The Lord Bishop of Chester: Before the Minister sits down—I asked a specific question and I would like to encourage an answer. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, spoke of those who incurred expenditure under the March 2017 deadline who had, I think he said, a legitimate expectation that their investment could be carried through. Is the Minister saying that they do not have a legitimate expectation any more and that that can be changed by the legislation, or is it simply that the Government are legislating in the face of what might be regarded as a legitimate expectation?


 

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: It is neither of those, if I may say so. We have had an engagement exercise with industry, the devolved Administrations and others to look at those who would be prejudiced by the proposal as set out on 18 June. In consequence of that, the grace period that we have put forward—which I think we have agreed to as it stands—is that if you have a planning permission, a grid connection and land rights as at 18 June, you have additional time. We have also moved in relation to the investment freeze condition and appeals to try to achieve that. So, following the engagement exercise launched after the decision which was taken on 18 June, we have catered for those with a legitimate expectation of being able to deploy in this regard.


 

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The Bishop also spoke briefly during the debate of Amendment 78V and Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth responded for the Government.


 

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, once again very briefly, could the Minister also make some comment in his response about what the cost to the consumer will be of electricity which is generated by plant under contracts under the capacity mechanism?


 

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate on Amendment 78V and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, for introducing it. We missed each other late last night to discuss this amendment, but I am grateful that she rang before breakfast this morning so that we could discuss it then. That is how seriously we both take our jobs. Again, I am grateful to the noble Baroness because otherwise it would have taken us on the blind side that the amendment was coming up today. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness for what she has said in relation to this issue and for confirming that she will not push it to a vote. The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, are right, but as framed there would be difficulties with the amendment anyway.

Perhaps I may say something about the purpose of the capacity market for the benefit of the House and then say something about the particular issue that has been raised. The purpose of the capacity market is to ensure security of electricity supply by providing all forms of capacity with the right incentives to be on the system and to deliver energy when it is needed. The first capacity market auction was successfully concluded in December 2014, contracting 49.3 gigawatts of capacity at a clearing price of £19.40 per kilowatt—and with that I have addressed the particular and very valid point raised by the right reverend Prelate. The outcome was great news for consumers, as fierce competition between participants drives down costs. The results will ensure that enough of our existing capacity will remain open at the end of the decade, as well as unlocking new investment.

I accept that there is an issue about emissions. Other government policies that were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, including the emissions performance standard and the carbon price floor, limit potential emissions from thermal plant for larger producers in keeping with our aims of decarbonising the power sector. For example, the emissions performance standard for larger generators limits carbon emissions to around half of that produced by unabated coal. The carbon price floor obviously provides an incentive for investment in low-carbon electricity generation. I accept that, as things stand, small generators are not covered by that. The department is aware of the issue, but we believe that the EPS represents the best way of looking at the smallest generators, perhaps within the review cycle for the EPS rather than in the context of the capacity market alone because that clearly seeks to ensure that the capacity we need is delivered. I am happy to discuss this further outside the Chamber. It is worth recognising that, at least at present, most of the small generators in the capacity market run for only a limited number of hours per year, but I appreciate that there is no guarantee on that. However, I recognise that this is an issue.

I turn now to what might have been the point that, given his background, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was referring to. There is not a state aid issue here. The capacity market state aid clearance is based on the current design of the mechanism, including the concept of technology neutrality, so accepting the amendment in its present form would have required state aid renotification, which as we know typically takes nine months or longer. That would have introduced uncertainty into the market and would have caused problems. But I am happy to continue a discussion on how to tackle what is a very real issue, and I thank the noble Baroness for her comments.


 

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