HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc628-30
2. Mr. Ian Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what was the annual average level of expenditure on research and development into renewable sources of energy between 1974 and 1979 and between 1985 and 1989.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

The annual average expenditure by the Department of Energy on research and development into renewable sources of energy between 1 April 1975 and 31 March 1979 was £1. 9 million, and between 1 April 1985 and 31 March 1989 the figure was £14.4 million.

Mr. Bruce

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which illustrates the commitment of this Government to renewable energies compared with that of the Labour Government. Is not the biggest problem with renewable energy sources the high cost of producing electricity from such sources? Would not it be difficult to get past the House provisions that made little old ladies pay twice or perhaps even more times as much as they would for electricity generated by coal or nuclear energy?

Mr. Moynihan

I thank my hon. Friend for his observation. It is as important for these projects to be environmentally acceptable as for them to be economically competitive. With the introduction of the non-fossil fuel obligation we have been able to create a marketplace so that commercially competitive renewable energy projects can come onstream effectively.

Ms. Armstrong

I hope that the Minister is looking at new projects for possible development and that at some stage he will look at one in my constituency, where, as part of an attempt to regenerate Consett, we are considering a wind park on part of the old steel works site. I am not sure that it would exactly replace what was there, but I hope that the Minister will consider these projects carefully, because there are people in my area who still do not have electricity and we hope that these projects will supply electricity to more far flung places.

Mr. Moynihan

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is important to identify new wind projects. She will be pleased to learn that the largest tranche of research and development expenditure is on wind energy. I am not aware of the specific project to which she referred, but I know that my officials will be only too happy to look in detail at any proposals. We want to give commercially viable wind energy projects as big a push as we can.

Mr. Simon Coombs

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no virtue simply in increasing expenditure on research and development on renewable sources of energy for its own sake? Does he further agree that what is needed is the careful examination of each project to see what its potential long-term yield is for the future?

Mr. Moynihan

I hope that my hon. Friend heard my earlier comments and is satisfied that we are aware of the importance of ensuring that proposed projects are commercially viable. Many are not. The great advantage of having the non-fossil fuel obligation is that we not only back the research and development with increasing resources, but provide a marketplace for those projects to play an important role in the diversity of energy supply on competitive terms.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Is not the reality that for the Government renewables are still the poor relation? Less than £25 million per year is spent on research and development into renewables while more than £95 million is spent on research and development in the nuclear industry. The other day the Government closed down the Camborne geothermal facility with a loss of 30 jobs. The evidence is that the cost of producing geothermal electricity is 31 per kWh, the cost of producing electricity is about 3.5p per kWh and the cost of producing nuclear power is more than 6p per kWh. On all assessments, nuclear power is a bad bargain and renewables are good, but the Government are blind to any sensible opposition.

Mr. Moynihan

I am sorry to inform the House that the hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. The hot dry rocks project in Cornwall was not closed down last week. That important project was given a new direction and a boost of £3.3 million for the period 1991 to 1994 so that we can work on it with our European colleagues and make it as economically viable as possible. I spent a day visiting that project. The cost per kilowatt hour to which the hon. Gentleman referred bears no reality to the sort of cost produced from the research on geothermal hot dry rocks, which can be up to 10 times higher than the figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted. That said, however, it is an important source of potential renewable energy within the European Community and further research is being undertaken to try to make sure that we can make it commercially viable. If we cannot, we cannot put further research and development into that energy source. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, any Government who spend £160 million on renewable research and development are committed to renewable energy projects and any Government who increase next year's provision by 20 per cent. more than that for this year are committed to undertaking research and development for commercially effective renewable energy projects.