HL Deb 18 July 1973 vol 344 cc1135-9

2.37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the world shortage of energy and the pollution of the atmosphere by petrol and diesel fumes, they will encourage the production of the electric or part-electric car.


My Lords, world oil supplies are expected to be adequate for a considerable time. Her Majesty's Government have supported research into the development of improved batteries, which are important for the construction of a practical electric car, and are continuing to examine promising alternatives. We have also financed the building of two electric buses which are now being tested in operation in city centres.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. Is it not a fact that the famous Mr. Healey—I refer to the engineer, not the politician—has recently announced that he is working on this project? Is there not also a prototype Waterbury electric car which is solar charged from the roof and electrically charged from crash barriers and from parking meters? Would it not be a great advantage for us to be able to develop something like this so that no longer need we be blackmailed by Colonel Gaddafi—or, for that matter, the Scottish Nationalists—and would not this car have been developed before but for the interests of the oil companies?


My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, that if some electric car could be invented it would certainly have very great advantages. Much research has been done by different companies from time to time, but, so far as I understand it at the moment, it has been found impossible to find a suitable form of battery.


My Lords, following the noble Earl's very encouraging reply, may I ask whether he is aware that one of the greatest contributions made to the lack of pollution and the cleanliness of the atmosphere in England is made by the local milkmen, some 50,000 of them, who drive their electric lorries or little tubs round Britain? Is the Minister further aware that in 1972, in an answer given in another place to Mr. Clark Hutchison, the Minister of State for Trade and Industry said that we were subsidising research into batteries to the tune of £160,000; and anent that supplementary answer may I ask whether we have increased that amount? When shall we cease to succumb to the pressure of the petrol interests? Edison said a century ago that there was a potential in the electric car and Berlin had 600 of them in 1902. Finally, is the Minister aware that a bus was running between Victoria and Charing Cross in 1902 and providing a good and a regular electric bus service?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, has provided a fund of information, of some of which I was aware and some I was not. I agree that the electric milk float has very great advantages, but the trouble with batteries is that they need to be re-charged. That means that they have to be re-charged with electricity developed probably by the use of oil or some other means of generation. With regard to the subsidy to which the noble Lord referred, the amount paid out by the Department has increased over that sum.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that with the existing batteries both the speed and endurance of most electric cars are inadequate for anything except city use?


My Lords, that is one of the problems.


My Lords, would the noble Earl take this opportunity to repudiate the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, that there might be some sort of blackmail in the matter coming from Scotland?


My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, comes to read what he said he may feel, in view of the number of people who come from the part of the world to which he referred, that he might have chosen slightly different words.


My Lords, is there any evidence to prove that the atmosphere is dangerously polluted by exhaust fumes, unless the exhaust pipe is turned and put through the window of the motor car?


My Lords, there are certain regulations to prevent the pollution of the atmosphere from exhaust fumes, and there is also a voluntary agreement with industry to reduce the lead content in petrol to a maximum of 4.5 grammes per litre by the end of 1975.


My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned in his first Answer that there was sufficient oil for a considerable period. Is he able to quantify that rather more exactly, and tell us what are the official estimates of the amount of fuel that is available, and for how long a period it will last?


My Lords, I think the imminence of the physical shortage of oil should not be overstressed. The present known reserves in the world are sufficient for about 35 years' supply at the current rate of consumption.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the prospects for the battery electric car are not very good and that there are electrical alternatives which are more promising? Is he further aware that it is possible to incorporate into a motorway a linear motor so that motor cars of the conventional kind, by the mere addition beneath them of a flat plate, could be carried along the motorway by mains power? Further, is he aware that this mains power would probably be generated in the future, which we now have to visualise, by nuclear energy?


My Lords, I agree that as to the prospect of electrical cars, as we know them, they have had their problems and therefore are not as good as we should wish. We should like to see this possibility pursued, but the fact is that research has not yet found a way of overcoming some of the problems. The alternatives to which the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, has referred are certainly exciting possibilities, which I am sure will be pursued.


My Lords, can the noble Earl give us an assurance that the Government have no intention of yielding to any political pressure from any quarter in order to ensure our adequate oil supplies in the future?


My Lords, it is the Government's desire to ensure, so far as possible, that we have adequate oil supplies for the future. This is one of the reasons why we are prosecuting to the extent we are the findings in the North Sea.


My Lords, the Minister mentioned that electricity would be required for re-charging batteries. Would not most of this be done at night time, which would be a great advantage to the Generating Board, who would be able to spread the load?


My Lords, that may well be a possibility. But the fact is that the electricity required to generate the batteries also has to be produced by hydrocarbons—


Nuclear energy.


So if one is referring to pollution, there is still the same relative degree of pollution.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that he is to be highly complimented on the way he has answered the supplementary questions that have been asked? Would it not be a good idea for the three Parties to get together, to see whether we cannot fix a date for a debate and discussion on a matter of such great importance as this with the people who are supposed to have advanced knowledge on this subject?


My Lords, we had a debate on the world energy situation some time ago. While the noble Lord, Lord Slater, may have a point about wishing this to be debated, the real problem is to try to find the answer to the research problems. At the moment that has not been possible.


My Lords, if investigations are to be made in this matter, would the noble Earl ensure that there is also taken into account the possibility of the steam car?


My Lords, the steam engine went out a short while ago. I do not know whether the reintroduction of the steam car would prove very acceptable to most people.


My Lords, is the Minister able to say whether fuel cell investigation is taking place as part of the research?


My Lords, there are many companies involved in research in this particular field.