HL Deb 01 February 1978 vol 388 cc751-75

2.58 p.m.

Lord WYNNE-JONES rose to call attention to the importance of developing alternative sources of energy; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in putting a Motion like this before your Lordships, I naturally lay myself open to the question: What is meant by the word "alternative"? I think I know this House sufficiently well to appreciate that if I give a definition no one else will pay any attention to it, and that your Lordships are extremely adept at turning any Motion in the direction in which you wish to it go.

I would say that the word "alternative" was meant to call attention particularly to those sources of energy which have not been conventionally used on any large scale. This is fairly wide, and "alternative" obviously changes its meaning as time goes on. Also I want to call attention to the fact that there are certain sources of energy which might be alternatively used—that is to say, not used simply as sources of energy. They might, indeed, be better employed in other ways. That is the general significance of the wording of the Motion, but I leave it to your Lordships to decide what to do with it.

If one goes back historically one finds that energy in different forms has been supplied from a variety of sources. Wood was certainly used at one time, and also wind and water power. Later we carbonised wood; we had charcoal. Then we used coal. It is interesting to notice that whenever such changes take place there are also changes in manufacture. For example, I believe that glassworking in this country was originally carried out to a very large extent in the Forest of Dean. This was because the Forest contained a plentiful supply of wood. Charcoal was used for the furnaces in which the sand and alkali were melted in order to make glass. I believe that originally many Huguenots worked in the Forest of Dean. Then the local population decided that they did not like the environmental consequences of the wood being chopped down, so there was pressure to drive away these foreign glassmakers from the Forest of Dean. Then they went up to Newcastle where coal was available.

For a certain period—it was not a very long period and lasted only about 100 years—the glass industry in Newcastle was extremely important not only for making glass for ordinary commercial purposes but also for making excellent artistic wares. The Newcastle tumbler is quite famous. It is a very elegant type of glass, with two or more knops on the stem. Newcastle glass is scarcely made now. In other words, a whole industry moved up to one part of the country but has now almost disappeared from that area. These movements occur as a consequence of the availability of energy. In other words, energy is crucial to the whole working of our manufacturing system and, indeed, to our daily life.

It is important to note something else about energy. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I am a little academic at this point, but I notice that at times people use the word "energy" in ways which I do not regard as quite legitimate or at least appropriate for reasonable discussion. While it is true that all forms of energy can be regarded as equivalent, they are not interconvertible and the lack of interconvertibility of the different forms of energy is rather important.

May I differentiate heat, which is a low form of energy, from what I should like to call energy proper. From an energy point of view, heat is of very little use unless it can be raised to a sufficiently high temperature. If, for example, one has the equivalent of a bath full of hot water at the top of a skyscraper one can obtain more energy out of that water by allowing it to drive a turbine and fall down to the ground than one can obtain from the heat in a bath of water. In other words, the heat is of a low grade and from a high energy point of view is a rather useless form of energy, whereas energy like electricity is very useful indeed.

I believe that we tend to mix up the two things. People often speak about how waste heat can be used for all sorts of purposes. All one can do with heat is to keep the temperature of a house a little above the outside temperature, to warm the water for one's bath and things of that kind. Certainly one could not drive a vacuum cleaner, or work a washing machine, or drive an electric saw with heat. That is to say, there are very many things which we cannot do with heat alone; we require what I am referring to as energy. Therefore noble Lords will forgive me if, somewhat pedantically, I emphasise that there is a difference between low-grade energy or heat and high-grade energy, and that one cannot convert low-grade energy or heat into high-grade energy on a one-to-one basis.

When people speak about the efficiency of a power station being only 30 per cent., one must remember that it is impossible for it to be more than approximately 30 per cent. efficient. Its efficiency is governed by the second law of thermodynamics, which lays down quite clearly that it is the temperature which decides how much heat can be turned into useful energy. If a great deal of heat is discharged from a power station it can be discharged only at a low temperature, and that is useful only for warming purposes; and it is not altogether useful in that way unless you are able to transport the heat. Therefore I am really concerned with energy, although heat is part of the problem.

If we look back over a period of only 30 years we see that the main source of energy in this country was coal. We had a very bad winter in 1947. Many noble Lords will recollect that the winter was so severe that there was an overall shortage of heating. The Government asked the late Lord Ridley to investigate the problem of coal supplies. When the Ridley Report was published, a production target of about 250 million tons of coal per annum was laid down for this country alone. It is interesting to note that that figure of 250 million tons of coal per annum is now the target for the whole of the European Economic Community by 1985. That is the extent of the change which has taken place.

Today we are producing only half of the amount of coal that was the target 30 years ago. The reason for this is that cheap oil became available. More recently, nuclear power has been introduced, but not yet on any large scale. Most of our energy has been supplied by coal and oil, but to a steadily diminishing extent by coal. This has created enormous problems for the country, and it is as well that we should appreciate the problems which are created by these changes.

May I suggest that it is it little irresponsible to speak about Governments not having plans for energy. It his been almost impossible to have plans, for the very simple reason that no one knew what source of energy would be available next. Thirty years ago, there was not a nuclear power station in the world. Nuclear power on an actual commercial scale linked to a grid was first produced in this country, although I believe that the Russians had a station at almost the same time, but it was a smaller station. Nuclear power can now be produced in a way that it could not be produced at that time, and today nuclear power is cheaper than either coal or oil for generating electricity. It is cheaper to use a nuclear reactor and to have nuclear fuel than to use coal or oil. Of course this does not take into account one important factor, which is the immense amount of effort and the enormous resources that have gone into developing nuclear power; and one might well ask whether one would not have had as good results from coal if even a tenth of the resources that have been devoted to doing research on nuclear energy had been put into research on the uses of coal. Even today, in my opinion, we are not putting anything like enough in the way of resources into research work into both the winning and the use of coal.

So we are faced here with problems which vary continuously with time and it will certainly take a genius—which I am not—to predict what the position will be in 20 years' time and possibly in 10 years' time. It is pure guesswork to make such predictions. But one can notice the trends which are taking place and one can ask whether sufficient effort is being put into different directions in order to ensure that we have energy available when we want it.

The position is made a little strange, perhaps, by the fact that ever since 1973 we have been talking about an energy crisis and the risk of not having enough energy. In fact, the European Commission at Brussels put forward a scheme in 1974 in which it proposed that the dependence of Europe upon oil should drop to 50 per cent. by the 1980s; that we should have a much smaller reliance upon oil. Yet previously our dependence on oil was steadily increasing. The question is, how do we go about this? The Commission proposed a scheme of absolute reliance upon nuclear energy. Your Lordships may recollect that, some time ago, we debated a report from your Lordships' Committee on the Community legislation in which it was pointed out that the European Commission's proposals were quite impracticable. Indeed, they themselves have now admitted that and said that we cannot have the reliance upon nuclear energy which at the time they suggested.

But there is a consequence. If we do not get energy from nuclear power to the extent that was hoped, then do we get it from coal? We have already been running down our coal industry. The coal industry of Europe is almost completely run down. The coal industry of the Netherlands has gone, the coal industry of Belgium has gone, the coal industry of France has virtually gone, the coal industry of Germany is producing very much less than it could and they are still running it down. Our coal industry has also been run down but we are the only country which has kept up a substantial coal industry. Therefore, the alternative must be oil for a lot of Europe. That takes us back to where we started, the oil crisis. It is interesting that in today's Times there is an article from their energy correspondent referring to this problem and the consequence for the coal industry. It is a very interesting point. I called attention to it briefly in a supplementary question the other day, but here it is very clearly stated: An apparent abundance of all forms of energy at relatively low prices is jeopardising the European Community's objective of maintaining coal production at between 250 and 255 million tonnes by 1985".

Here we are in a most extraordinary situation; that is, that although the price of oil has gone up, the availability of oil is now so wide that, if we are not careful, by 1985 it will almost certainly be cheaper to buy oil than to buy coal, although at the present time the price of oil has risen above coal. If this kind of thing goes on, it can mean that all the plans that have been made for stimulating the coal industry may founder.

In addition to that, Europe as a whole is today importing something like 45 million tonnes of coal per annum from outside the Community. In the development of coal, we are really in a situation which I find astonishing and indeed dangerous. Everyone realises that by the end of this century we shall be needing coal extensively because oil will have reached a plateau of production and will almost certainly be on the downgrade. Therefore oil will become less and less available after the turn of the century. One cannot predict the exact time; one does not know exactly what the resources are, but one has a reasonable idea. Coal will be there in plenty, but if we have run down our coal industry between now and the end of the century it will mean an enormous investment in order to develop the coalmines which have been run down or not brought into use; the cost is very large. I believe the cost of developing the Selby coalfield is of the order of £3,000 million. That is for developing one coalfield with a production of 40 million tonnes of coal. That is much more than the cost of building a nuclear power station, but it is so important to realise that our problems are by no means over.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, could he perhaps dwell for a moment on hydro-electricity? I speak advisedly on this, as at the moment we have 20 ft. of snow in Scotland and when it melts all that will be flowing through dams in the Highlands.


Yes, my Lords I certainly will. I apologise because I have taken rather too long in talking about the problem of coal. I intended to come to the other question, but I thought it was important to refer to coal because coal is almost moving out from being a main source to being an alternative source of energy. I thought it was worth while calling attention to the problems with which we are faced with regard to coal.

To come back to the other alternative sources, I gladly agree that the other ones, such as hydro-electricity, are important. But this is where we have to be a little careful. We have to ask ourselves whether we are speaking about minor additional supplies or major supplies. If we are talking about competing with nuclear energy it has to be major. Nothing less than something of the order of the equivalent of 40 or 50 million tons of coal per year is in that league.

So far as hydro-electricity is concerned, there are places where it is important, but I am sure the noble Lord will agree that, whereas there are a few places, especially in Scotland, where it can be used, the best of those have already been developed, and to go further would probably produce relatively little for fairly considerable expense. I think that in any case no new technique is required; the techniques are well-known. Consequently it is largely a matter for evaluation by the Electricity Generating Board as to where they think it is appropriate to do it. I quite agree that it should not be neglected.

Other sources are well worth bearing in mind. One is tidal energy. Reference is often made to this, and there are one or two places in the world where tidal energy is being used; for example, in France, the Rance estuary—for nearly 20 years they have had a scheme for using tidal energy, and it has been very successful. It has often been proposed—I think going back to the last century—that we should use the estuary of the Severn by building a barrage there and employing that. This is on a totally different scale, I should say, from Rance. I believe it would be about 50 times as great in production of energy as the Rance scheme.

It looks attractive. There is a very high tide; it is the highest tide in Europe. I think it is about 8.8 metres, which is pretty considerable. I think the biggest in the world is at the Bay of Fundy, about 10½ metres, but the Severn tide is very considerable. It has been carefully investigated. In fact, the Department of Energy has produced one of these booklets on it, and it has gone into it in very considerable detail. The figures which are given there are quite interesting. This investigation was carried out by a Netherlands research group who are very familiar with the problems of building barrages at sea. They come to the conclusion that a barrage could be built from Lavernock Point—which is between Cardiff and Barry—across to Brean Down, which is close to Weston-Super-Mare. This barrage raises problems because the tide is such that apparently they could not use caissons, which are the floating type of support; they would have to have enormous concrete pillars. It is estimated that the cost of this at 1977 prices would be £4,000 million, and the estimated energy produced would be equivalent to 2 million tons of coal per annum.

This is a valuable addition, but when you bear in mind that in 1975 our Generating Board consumed the equivalent of 109 million tons of coal per annum, you see that the Severn barrage would add 2 per cent. to our electricity supply and would cost £4,000 million. It would also have environmental effects which no one fully understands, but one of the effects is certain; that is, that it would alter the tide all the way up the Irish Sea even as far as Morecambe Bay, and apparently the tide would be raised by about 1 ft.—the mean tide would be raised by about 1 ft. in Cardigan Bay and would be raised by 6 in. in Morecambe Bay, which is an enormous distance away. So one can see that the environmental consequences are not simple; one does not have a full idea of what would happen. I would add that, whereas Morecambe Bay could be used, the scale is much less than for the Severn, and in addition to that I believe that the silting of the small harbours around Morecambe Bay, if a barrage was built, would be quite serious.

If one looks at some of the other sources, one which is often referred to is wind power. This is quite natural because a great deal of wind is available. But the trouble is that the wind is most readily available on hilltops. If you covered all the hilltops of the country with windmills I think there might be a considerable outcry from a lot of environmentalists; and I would not blame them, because I would not like it myself. But a calculation has been made about this: it is that if we had 3,000 aero-generators—they do not call them windmills nowadays; they call them aero-generators—on hilltops, and another 7,000 on open sites, and assuming an average wind velocity of 14½ knots on the hilltops and 10½ knots on the other sites, then, if this were continuous, they would produce enough electricity to save 8 million tons of coal per annum. So you can see that even that is still not up to the 40 or 50 million tons I have mentioned.

This is our problem wherever we look. Wherever we look for alternative sources of energy we find that they just do not produce the quantity we will require—with one exception. I do not want to go into it in detail, more especially as I know my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder during last week was able to make detailed inquiries in the University of Edinburgh about this. It is wave motion, not tidal motion. There the estimate is very interesting, because whereas wind is variable wave motion is practically the same all the year round. You may get much bigger waves and so on, but you always have wave motion, and the amount of energy in the waves is enormous. It is reckoned—figures cannot be exact at the moment, but they are the best I have been able to get—that with an adequate development of wave motion, using what are called little ducts which flip backwards and forwards on the sea, one would be able to get the equivalent of something like 60 million tons of coal per annum. There we are up into the right region. Therefore, it seems to me from my examination of the situation that that is the one alternative form of energy which will be of great value to us, if the technical problems are solved. I do not want to mislead your Lordships; the problems are not yet solved, either those of production or those of distribution. If they were solved, then there indeed we have a valuable source of energy which could play a very important part, fully equivalent to the part that is expected of nuclear energy.

If I might for one brief moment refer once more to coal. May I remind your Lordships that coal, like oil, is something very precious for the production of chemicals. Our whole petro-chemical industry is at present dependent upon oil, but there was a time when that sort of industry was dependent on coal. I can remember when at the ICI Works at Billingham there was an enormous plant for coking coal for the company's own purposes. That plant has entirely disappeared because they found they could get oil more cheaply; they could put it on a smaller site and distribution was easier, so they have gone over to oil entirely. But when oil is not there then coal will come into its own.

Therefore, I would ask Her Majesty's Government to pay enormous attention to the development of these alternatives—alternatives of uses as well as alternatives of sources. The alternative use of coal is going to be quite vital for the future of this country and in this respect we are better off than most countries. It would be criminal if we did not develop it. I hope that in replying on this debate my noble friend will give us some encouragement, and I hope that something approaching the resources that have gone into the development of nuclear energy will now go into the development of these other forms of energy because it is vital for the future of this country. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I thought it would be for the convenience of the House if I intervened at the beginning in order to explain the Government's views of and reactions to the problems that have been raised by my noble friend. This is the second occasion on which I must congratulate my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones on his timing in raising a debate in the House. He brings to it a lot of knowledge and erudition; his experience in the field of chemistry and other matters makes him an expert on the subject and I think the House listened very carefully to his proposals.

In the very full and informative debate on energy policy that we had last May, I referred to the new initiatives being taken by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy in opening up the formulation of energy policy to wider public debate. Much has happened since that time. I therefore welcome the opportunity that my noble friend has provided for us to review recent events and to consider the Government's policy on the development of alternative energy sources.

In discussing alternative energy sources, I think it most desirable to include the question of energy conservation since, although it is not strictly an energy source, it can, for future planning purposes, be considered to be at least as effective as one. And the potential for energy saving through conservation measures and the development of more energy-efficient equipment and appliances is very large indeed. Accordingly, I shall refer later on to the Government's initiatives in the field of energy conservation.

In reviewing recent events, I should first mention the work of the Energy Commission. The Government seek to develop an integrated energy policy in a way that enables the widest possible range of interests to contribute. The holding of the National Energy Conference in June 1976 was one step in this direction; the setting up of a broadly based Energy Commission is another. The Commission, chaired by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy, held its first meeting at the end of November and had before it a working document on energy policy prepared by the Department of Energy.

It is the intention that this document, together with the Commission's comments on it, should form the basis of a Government Green Paper which will be published as a further step in the development of a long-term, co-ordinated and integrated energy policy for the United Kingdom. The working document fully recognises the potential long-term importance of the renewable sources mentioned by my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones—such as waves, sun, tides, winds and geothermal energy—as world reserves of fossil energy become scarcer.

Secondly, the House will be aware that, last September, the Select Committee on Science and Technology published its reports on the development of alternative sources of energy for the United Kingdom and on the exploitation of tidal power in the Severn Estuary. The Government are considering the Select Committee's conclusions and recommendations and will be giving their replies to both reports as soon as possible.

I should now like to turn to the Government's research and development programmes on renewable sources. Most renewable sources of energy are at an early stage of development. There are now substantial programmes of further work to establish whether they are feasible and acceptable and to help to make them competititive. Our purpose is to develop the potential of these renewable sources so that, one by one, they may become economically viable and attractive options. Once fully-engineered systems have become available for large scale exploitation, it will then be a matter for decision how large any investment programmes should be. As the current work yields results, expenditure will be increased to allow further development work to proceed as appropriate.

I would impress on the House the need to consider these alternative energy sources in the context of the country's total energy supplies. Important though they are, they must be seen in perspective. We have no proven reserves of uranium ore, but we have substantial reserves of oil and gas, and very large reserves of coal. Indeed, we can expect coal to continue as the cornerstone of our energy policy—as my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones stressed. The total known resources of coal in the United Kingdom are put at 190 billion tons, of which the Coal Board assess that 45 billion tons—or more than 300 years' life at current extraction rates—may ultimately be economically recoverable.

With present estimated recoverable oil reserves from the Continental Shelf equivalent to 5,000 to 7,000 million tons of coal and proven gas reserves equivalent to some 1,100 million tons of coal, with a further 900 million tons from probable and possible gas reserves, the United Kingdom can expect—even after the period of self-sufficiency is over—to have substantial indigenous energy reserves. As the House will know, we will have an option to go in for a fast breeder reactor programme for the supply of electricity. If we choose this path, then the reserves of depleted uranium resulting from past operations of our nuclear programmes will be worth the equivalent to some 40 billion tons of coal.

To date, the Government have announced programmes on renewable sources with projected expenditure of £10 million. We have made it clear—indeed, we have already demonstrated—that further funding will be provided where current research and development give encouraging indications and where increased Government expenditure on proving the engineering concepts appears appropriate. The sources being investigated are wave, tidal and wind energy—again referred to by my noble friend—which would be used to generate electricity, and solar and geothermal energy which could provide low grade heat for domestic and industrial application. Vegetable materials and biological waste which are being studied as part of the solar energy programme might be exploited to provide fluid fuels.

Wave energy offers great potential for the United Kingdom. In principle, some 1,000 kilometres of wave energy devices placed off the North-West of Britain could supply energy equivalent to about half of our present electricity requirement, which confirms the view of my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones. The original programme for £1 million over two years has been expanded to £2.5 million over two to three years because of favourable progress, to allow testing of more advanced devices of a larger scale size, and to permit investigation of related problems. Trials under representative sea conditions are proceeding in Loch Ness and the Solent, and the National Engineering Laboratory is conducting work in its wave tanks. Problems such as launching and servicing, and bringing power ashore, are being studied. The aim of the wave energy programme is to conduct trials of a full-scale prototype at sea by the mid-1980s.

The United Kingdom has one of the most suitable tidal power sites in the world in the Severn Estuary. Schemes currently proposed might provide energy equivalent to several million tons of coal annually. An appropriate project would take some 15–20 years to complete and would cost £3,000—£4,000 million. Studies commissioned by the Department of Energy on closing a barrage and its effect on the tidal range have recently been published and reviewed in Energy Paper No. 23. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy is considering them in the light of advice from his Advisory Council on Research and Development for Fuel and Power. But the Department of Energy has already initiated the collection of further data important to barrage design and construction, by the use of wave rider buoys.

I now turn to wind energy. The potential contribution of wind energy in the United Kingdom was reviewed for the Department of Energy by its Energy Technology Support Unit and published as Energy Paper No. 21. It indicates that the number of sites offering favourable wind conditions is limited. Sites are concentrated in the West and North-West. But the use of some of these areas for large wind machines could well be unacceptable to the public, as my noble friend said.

The Department of Energy has commissioned a jointly funded design study of a large machine with an industrial consortium, and the Scottish Electricity Boards are contributing work to the study. The report on this study is expected shortly and will be considered by my right honourable friend's Advisory Council. In addition, the Department is providing funds for development work by industry on a vertical axis wind machine. The Department also plans to examine offshore siting in some detail since this may increase the potential of this energy source.

The Government are supporting research and development in the solar energy field. In February of last year the Department of Energy announced a £3.6 million four-year programme bringing total Government support over the period to £6 million. The use of solar energy for water and space heating has been identified as the area of greatest potential return in this country. The principal aims of the Department of Energy's programme are to stimulate the development of solar water-heating systems, to explore the performance of solar space-heating systems and to encourage the development and manufacture of cost-effective components and complete installations.

Much of this work is being carried out with Government support for industrial initiatives through joint-funding contracts. The Building Research Establishment of the Department of the Environment is managing field trials of panels and other components which constitute an important part of the solar heating programme.

The Government's support is also being given to research on special crops and biological wastes. Preliminary assessments indicate that even in a densely populated country like the United Kingdom the processing of these materials might eventually contribute useful quantities of liquid and gaseous fuels. The United Kingdom participates in the related programmes of the European Economic Community and the International Energy Agency.

I turn to geothermal energy. The prospects for geothermal energy in the United Kingdom were reviewed for the Department of Energy by the Energy Technology Support Unit and published in Energy Paper No. 9. In July 1976 a three-year £840,000 programme of more detailed research and assessment of resources was announced. The major items in this programme have been accepted as part of the geothermal R and D programme of the European Community and are jointly funded by the Commission and the Department of Energy. It concentrates on the investigation of deep geological basins, on regions with natural warm springs, and on areas which could constitute a site of hot rocks.

I would remind the House that, for the very long term, controlled nuclear fusion which we are thinking about, may prove to be a practically limitless new energy source. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's fusion programme at Culham has been for a number of years an integral part of the European Community's nuclear fusion programme. After lengthy negotiations within the Community—to which we referred in our debate last year—it was announced in October last year that the Joint-European Torus (JET) would be built at Culham. This will be the centrepiece of Euratom's fusion research programme for a number of years ahead. In addition to being the host nation for this important international project, the United Kingdom, through the Atomic Energy Authority, will continue to play its full part as a participating member country.

To sum up the Government's position on renewable sources, I would say that we are seeking to establish those options which could make useful contributions to our future energy supplies and which are likely to repay the investment in them. And—given the current state of the technologies involved—we are pursuing their development vigorously.

I cannot emphasise too strongly the important part which energy conservation has to play in extending the life of our coal, our oil and our natural gas; in giving further time for the development of alternative sources of energy; and in minimising the call on scarce resources. But I must also emphasise that energy conservation is about improving the efficiency with which energy is used. Decisions about the use of energy are made every moment of the day by everyone at work, at home and on the roads. The Government surely cannot intervene individually in those decisions. But what Government can do is to establish and pursue policies which help people to use energy in the most cost-effective way.

The policies which the Government have adopted so far have contributed to energy savings estimated to be worth some £2,000 million over the last four years. Much of this was achieved by realistic pricing, backed by a full range of general and specialist information and advisory services for industry. There was a major development last December in the announcement of a 10-year programme costing £320 million over the first four years, of measures which could lead to savings of up to 10 million tons of oil-equivalent a year—worth some £700 million a year at current prices. This latest package is aimed at selected targets across the whole energy consuming field—conservation in public buildings; insulation of public-sector housing; new building regulations; more advice and help for industry; and better information and advice for the motorist. This programme taken with the measures previously adopted is a major step forward. But it can be developed further and we shall seek to do this.

I would emphasise that we do not intend this country's energy riches to blind us to the importance of energy conservation. The Government have recognised the importance of giving a lead and have given one. There is great scope for cutting costs in industry and commerce, for improving our industrial competitiveness, and for saving in energy costs in the home through the adoption of cost-effective ways of using energy. Many of these cost-effective ways are well-known, and have been featured in the "Save It" campaign. That campaign will continue, and we shall go on developing policies aimed at maximising the benefits to firms, to individuals and to the country as a whole which come from energy conservation.

In conclusion, I would say that the Government's attitude towards alternative sources of energy is both responsible and imaginative. It is our view that the country's energy requirements in the longer term will be met through increasing attention to energy conservation, through making maximum use of our substantial coal reserves as oil and natural gas supplies decline, through our growing nuclear electricity generating capacity and by developing the technologies of renewable energy sources so that they can be readily introduced in the light of our future energy needs.

I am sure the House will agree that this Government have shown that they are prepared to allocate substantial resources to the development of energy options for the future once it has been shown that the commitment of such resources is both technically and economically sound.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, last night I was somewhat critical of the Government and so perhaps I can try to redress the balance by saying how much I welcome the fact that we are supported by no less a person than the Prime Minister, who said that he thought suitable use for some of the North Sea oil revenues would be the development of alternative sources of energy. So we start right at the top.

Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, and having looked at the list of speakers, I feel sure that the noble Lord the Leader of the House shares with me the slight feeling of being a layman among a minefield of experts. However, he has the advantage, which I do not share with him, of a fair number of experts at his elbow.

The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, began by pointing out that we have a terminological problem. We use the expressions, "alternative sources of energy", "unconventional sources of energy", "renewable sources of energy", and sometimes these are referred to as the "soft energy options" or the "benign sources". It is an unfortunate fact that, at the moment, we do not have a good global word to cover the kind of thing that I believe we shall talk about this afternoon.

However, I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, in distinguishing some of these sources from energy made available by the consumption of capital resources of fossil fuels and fissile fuels, which are usually used on a large scale and which, at least in the case of fossil fuels, usually give rise to considerable levels of pollution. In passing, may I also agree with both noble Lords that the indications are that, around the year 2000, we shall need a much larger contribution from nuclear power than we already have.

I particularly welcome the constant references throughout the speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the House to the Government's devotion to the cause of energy-saving, about which I confess I have in the past always had some doubt. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord affirming this once again. Even with careful attention to energy-saving and even with the development of alternative energy sources on a world scale, we shall need nuclear power. It is worth repeating the comment made the other day by Sir John Hill, that it is up to the sophisticated and developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, to use the more complex sources of energy in order to make available the simpler sorts of energy—which are basically the fossil fuels—for use in the undeveloped countries which will be unable to cope with the more complex and sophisticated sources.

I do not know whether the noble Lord would care to tell the House, but recently I have heard that there is a great deal of interest in the United States in the possibilities of very deep gas resources below the levels of 20,000 feet, which have not previously been explored in the course of the search for oil and gas. These reserves are considered to be very large. I believe that they are associated with brine, and there is some question as to how widely available these resources may be and what might be the cost of realising the resources in the long run. But, within the definition of what we are talking about today, these are not strictly speaking what we call "alternative sources".

Noble Lords have referred to water power which, in some sense, is in an intermediate situation. It is not really an alternative source. Indeed, it might be considered to be a conventional source in the sense that—as the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones said—historically, it was the main source of motive power prior to the advent of steam. It is now usually exploited in the form of large capital-intensive installations, and it is not a very significant source in this country as distinct from, for instance, Norway, where I believe it produces 80 to 90 per cent. of the total energy requirements.

However, I should like to suggest that we think very carefully about the aggregate contribution that can be made by small units which, I think, could be significantly greater than is generally realised. Recently, there has been developed a new form of low head turbine which might have a contribution to make here. I was rather hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, might make a contribution on this because, we should no doubt have heard about geothermal energy. I am sorry to see that his name is not on the list today. However, I see the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of High Wray, and I have a feeling that he may have something to say about water. I hope that he may possibly try to persuade the official mind of the difference between abstraction of water for use in things like irrigation and consumption, and using water, dropping it through a certain distance and returning it to the river bed for the use of water power.

The inability to make this distinction appears to have given rise to some perfectly extraordinary claims by the water authorities. I think that the most flagrant case was that of a firm in Wales which used to pay a water rate of around £60 a year. It was suggested that it would be suitable if the firm started to pay £13,000 a year. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that the firm was not very happy about that. I believe that the case is still proceeding, so maybe we shall be told that it is sub judice.

It is also worth making the point that we must try to distinguish between the production of energy and the transport or distribution of energy. Electricity is merely a means of transport with very considerable losses and expenses involved in the process. The gas grid is slightly different in the sense that it is a primary fuel going through a distribution network. It is also worth pointing out that, so far, there is very little sign of any alternative to the fossil fuels for transport purposes themselves. I realise that the railways can use electricity and there has been a suggestion that possibly hydrogen or methanol might be suitable fuels. I am told that there are very much more serious problems with hydrogen than most people realise, in that, under pressure hydrogen has a nasty habit of going straight through pipes and valves which look solid to the ordinary mortal. It is basically rather nasty, dangerous stuff, although given a chance it goes up into the atmosphere and disappears. Provided it is free to do so, everything is all right.

Global transport by wind power is an old concept, and I have recently become associated with a group which believes that it is once again a commercially sound proposition to carry things about the world under sail. Whether we shall succeed in convincing people of this remains to be seen. But it is an interesting point that, if this came about, it would, in itself, constitute a major saving of energy on a world scale. We believe, incidentally, that it might be an opportunity for a new venture for British Shipbuilders, and a contribution to world shipbuilding.

I also have a rather special interest in wind energy in that, if you look at any map of the wind energy of this country, the place where I live off the north-west coast is right on the highest line. There is a special point about this, in so far as areas like the remote parts of Scotland are particularly difficult and expensive to get mains supply to; they have a particularly hopeful wind pattern. The wind has the great advantage that it tends to be available mostly in the winter, which is the time when it is particularly needed.

The variability of wind clearly demands storage of the resulting energy, and this in turn tends to mean that wind energy is more suitable for heat generation than it is, for instance, for light generation, because it is rather easier to store heat energy than any other form of energy for, shall we say, a period of something like 10 days. Here I was particularly interested to hear the noble Lord the Leader of the House tell us that a report about wind energy is to come out shortly.

There is also the fact that, if you have wind machines scattered around the country, there is a decent chance that, in any given area, there will be enough wind to make a net input to the grid. I have always been inclined to believe that the environmental effects, at least in the remote areas, have been overrated. I happen to like the look of windmills, and so perhaps I am prejudiced in this respect. Noble Lords may have seen that there has been a proposal—I do not know how hairy and way-out it is—to put offshore windmills over the depleted gas wells and store some of the wind energy in the form of pressure in the gas wells on which they would be standing. There would be no environmental objection to an offshore windmill, although I do not know what the ship operators would have to say about it.

Most renewable sources call for some kind of storage possibility. Of course water is itself sometimes used as a storage medium to pump storage systems, such as Loch Awe. There are two levels of storage problem. One is the daily variation as between peak loads and non-peak loads, and the other is the problem of seasonal storage, which is most obvious with solar energy, where one is trying to store up the energy in the summer for use in the winter. That is a much larger problem than simply trying to damp out peak loads, but of course this is what reservoirs are used for. Here again, as a boating enthusiast, I often feel that the environmental objections to reservoirs are rather overstated.

This also applies to the tidal power concepts, particularly those that have already been referred to. The Severn Estuary is the most attractive one. I gather that the Dutch reckon that they can solve most of the engineering problems. The capital required is enormous, and my understanding is that it is even worse than some people imagine, in the sense that the single-basin plan, which would give a fluctuating power output, really is not of much value. What you have to have is something that would give a base load, which means a two-basin concept, which is even more expensive than the original single-basin concept.


My Lords, will the noble Lord, forgive me for a moment? The figure I quoted of £4,000 million is for the double-basin scheme. That is the figure that was given me. It is not for the single basin. I think that his statement is perfectly correct, in that the double basin scheme is more expensive, but is preferable.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, because I do not believe that the single-basin scheme is a starter at all. Again, speaking as somebody who enjoys leisure on the water, it is an attractive thought that one could potentially be creating an area of the size of the Solent which would be satisfactory for water recreation, whereas anybody who has ever gone boating in the Bristol Channel with even the kindest possible concept of it would agree that it is not a wholly satisfactory area now, with its colossal tides and enormous acreage of mud. There are spin-offs in the possibility of creating an airport, and also improving communications across some of the dams that it would be necessary to build.

Wave power has already been referred to. Whether you say that it could potentially produce a third or a half of our energy needs, at least we are in the right scale here. Again, we know a thing or two about that in my part of the world. Actually it might tend to reduce the seas round where we are, so that would be an advantageous spin-off in the long run. I have had representations from an ex-naval officer who believes that it is a crazy concept, that the maintenance and the mooring problems are enormous, and that we should do much better to have a shore-based installation which would exploit the much lesser energy available from the waves. But I have a feeling that the energy available there is so very much less that, although it gets over some problems, it ends up by being less attractive. Nevertheless, we should not underrate the problems either of generating the energy or of getting it ashore, nor forget that, when you do get it ashore, you tend to do so in a place which is remote from the areas where you really want to use it.

Solar power is fundamentally the biggest contributor of all. In the United States, they are devoting far more research to this than we are. I believe that they are putting in something like 100 times the research and development effort that we are. In the long term sense, solar energy can be harnessed through the biomass—through growing things. The simplest example is growing trees, cutting them down and burning them in a furnace. There are also possibilities of electrolysing water into hydrogen, and so on. I am led to believe that these are very long term prospects.

When you come to the more direct uses, there is the problem that solar energy is very diffuse. The intensity of it is very low indeed. The effect of that is that solar energy is not yet cost-effective, anyway in this country, where the solar environment is not all that favourable. Nevertheless, there are potentially earlier contributions here than with perhaps almost any other source that one can think of.

This leads us to another point that has nothing to do with alternative energy, as such. There are devices, such as the heat pump, which have the capacity to concentrate and upgrade energy. When they have a coefficient of performance of three to one, the impression is that you are getting 3 kilowatts out for every one you put in. This is not, strictly speaking, true. What in fact you are doing is taking energy, which is ultimately solar energy, but upgrading it into a usable form.

Then there is a beautifully simple device which is gradually coming into use now. It is commonly called the heat pipe, which is a simple form of a heat pump, and it enables you to transfer bits of heat from one place to another where you can use them more effectively. These kinds of project are attractive because they can help to make better and more flexible use of the sources of energy we have available to us.

If you go back to the remote areas such as the place where I come from, I believe that these are the areas where we should be trying out some of these possibilities as the first shot. Electric energy generated by diesel generators tends to be of the order of four or five times more expensive than it is on the ordinary main, and this is the kind of environment we are used to. Here is a point I have never seen made: it is probable that the electricity supply industry's policy of evening out charges as between remote areas and the closer areas tends to obscure the true marginal cost of supplying electricity to these remote areas. This unfortunately upsets the accounting which might be done in comparing the possible alternative sources of energy in those parts of the world. If one could lop off some of the more expensive energy which is supplied by the electricity supply companies, it is conceivable that at the end of the day the average cost would come down. I fear I am explaining in a rather complicated way what is a fairly simple concept.

In a remarkable book with which most of us would disagree almost entirely, Anthony Lovins in Soft Energy Paths makes the point that there is a very powerful case for generating energy on the scale for, and close to, the places where it is to be consumed. This again brings one back to the use of some of the alter- native energy sources in some of the remoter areas where the main energy sources are more difficult to make available. This leads me to support Lord Wynne-Jones in wondering whether we are right to have a preponderance of something like 100 to 1 on the amount of money we are now spending on nuclear research as opposed to the other forms of energy.

It seems to me that the basic message coming through in this debate is that we need to invest to have the alternative options open when we need them. I hope this means that we shall be devoting the money to applied research and not to deep theoretical research, which is on far too long a time-scale. But because the time-scale is so long, Government support may be needed. Here I welcome the assurance given by Lord Peart that there are further funds available for suitable projects which appear to be showing possibilities. In the meantime, in the interests both of energy-saving and the long-term availability of the other sources of energy, I hope the Government will pay attention to the possibility of removing the impediments, both fiscal and others, to some private developments and that they will be giving the maximum possible support to research and innovation in this very important field.