Future Energy Needs (Scotland)

Charles Walker makes a major speech on future energey needs for Scotland as a member of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am obviously not from Scotland, Mr. Amess; you can tell that by my accent. I represent a seat that is north of the M25 by about 500 yd. I am here at the invitation of my Chairman, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), and the Clerk of the Select Committee.

The debate is timely. For the first time since 1996, the United Kingdom is a net importer of gas. We have 11 days' gas storage in reserve compared with an EU average of 55. Since 2003, the cost of electricity has increased by nearly 40 per cent. That is having an impact on Scottish business and Scottish domestic users. Moreover, Scotland obtains 39 per cent. of its energy from nuclear reactors. Torness is due to close in 2023 and Hunterston is to close in 2011. In response to the looming energy crisis in Scotland, the Scottish Executive suggested that the focus for renewables should be 40 per cent. of Scotland's overall energy usage. A quarter of that comes from hydro, a half from wind power and a quarter from emerging technologies.

When considering energy, there is no free ride. All the so-called environmental solutions have pitfalls. Hydroelectricity produces very little useful electricity. The environmental implications for the ecosystem, rivers, upstream erosion and migratory fish runs, are fairly significant. Wind tends to divide communities. A sea of windmills all over the place may seem a good idea to the Greens who do not live in the area, but if people see windmills from their back door, the idea might not seem so good to them. Members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are appalled by the number of birds that are sliced up—Kenwood Chef'ed—by propelling blades. Wind power is also unreliable.

I like to spend a lot of time in Scotland.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): We are debating wind farms and renewables. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the case of responsible applications for wind farms, the RSPB plays a significant role in determining whether the siting of windmills is appropriate for the migrating paths of birds?

Mr. Walker : It is good that the RSPB is involved and I am sure that it will continue to be involved, but wind farms are not the long-term solution to meeting future energy needs, in England or in Scotland. The cost is not outweighed by the reward.

Mr. Joyce : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is no place for wind farms, full stop, or do they have a place in an intelligent energy mix?

Mr. Walker : I think that the people promoting wind farms have rather overplayed their hand. Wind farms are not the long-term solution. They will produce a bit of energy, like hydro does, but they will not meet the energy needs of Scotland or the UK. Tidal wave schemes have been mentioned, but in the Cardiff bay area we have seen their impact on estuary environments. Nuclear fusion has possibilities, but other hon. Members have mentioned that it might be 50 years away.

That leaves us with coal, which pollutes, creates greenhouse gases and does not put us in good favour with our Kyoto partners, and gas, which we know is running out.

Mr. David Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman should have listened to some of the debate. I will give an example of one of the things that coal is involved in. The Monktonhall colliery in my constituency of Midlothian closed in the 1980s. That colliery is now being considered for a pilot scheme involving hot water to heat some 4,000 houses in the Midlothian area. There are 250 ex-mines in the whole of Scotland, two thirds of which could be similarly utilised for housing heating systems throughout Scotland. That is a way of using money to examine things that are outside the envelope. It is about time that we had a bit of horizon thinking here, because it is not happening.

Mr. Walker : Perhaps I was a little flippant about coal. Of course there is a place for it; there are clean coal technologies and there is scrubbing. However, I do not think that any leader of a global power, beyond George Bush—I know that Labour Members do not perhaps rate him as highly as others—believes that coal is the long-term future in terms of meeting the world's energy needs. That leaves us with the option of nuclear power. Again, that divides the House. However, if France can generate 75 per cent. of its energy from nuclear power and Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland can respectively generate 55 per cent, 50 per cent. and 40 per cent. of their energy from it, and those countries can get rid of their waste in a way that does not cause a great deal of public concern, I do not understand why nuclear energy and its advancement in Scotland and the United Kingdom meets with such hostility.

Sir Robert Smith : The hon. Gentleman says that all the countries he listed have already got rid of their nuclear waste with no problem. Will he enlighten the Chamber as to how they have disposed of their nuclear waste on a permanent basis?

Mr. Walker : I am afraid that I cannot enlighten the Chamber on how they have done that and I am perfectly happy to say so. However, 75 per cent. of France's power comes from nuclear fuel.

John Robertson : In Finland, they put the waste into granite, 5 miles down in the ground. They have it securely contained. They are building a new heavy duty repository. I can also point to the report that has just been submitted by Canada on doing something similar by putting all its waste in one area deep underground.

Mr. Walker : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention.

Nuclear power and nuclear power technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. There are now off-the-shelf designs for nuclear power stations. They cost between £1 billion and £1.5 billion. A new nuclear power station can be built within 5 years, but of course the timeline would be longer because planning permission and the consent of local people would be required.

I take the point that nuclear power creates a lot of concern. It is perceived in this country as a secretive and dangerous industry. Some of that concern is misplaced, but it is the responsibility of Government and those who are promoting nuclear power to try to meet the concerns and persuade the public that if we are to meet this country's long-term energy needs, we cannot rule out nuclear power out of hand. There is certainly a place for nuclear power. I hope that over the next 10 to 15 years we will start to win the argument and that more of our energy will be produced by nuclear power, because it offers the best long-term solution to our energy needs.

As has been rightly pointed out, there is enough nuclear material buried underground, which has not yet been mined, to last generation after generation.

4.25 pm

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