On Friday East Surrey MP and former Shadow DEFRA Secretary Peter Ainsworth sought a second reading for the Green Energy (Definition and Promotion Bill). Here are some highlights from his speech:
"There is at last cross-party agreement—something that I have long sought—on the need for Government action to put in place measures to liberate the pent-up ingenuity, creativity and capital of businesses and markets, and the public’s pent-up enthusiasm to engage with delivering real power to the people by decentralising the way in which we create and use energy in this country.
The opportunities before us are enormous. Rebuilding the economy as if the earth mattered is an enormous task, but it brings together an array of interlocking benefits—not just sustainable economic growth and safe green jobs, but enhanced global and national security, improved social justice at home and abroad, and a more thriving and robust natural environment. I think that the whole House will agree that bringing those things together is a worthy task, but it will require vision and courage, relentless attention and, above all, hope. In that mighty context, this little private Member’s Bill may seem a trifling affair. It is indeed a modest Bill—modesty befits private Members’ Bills—but I believe that if it succeeds, it will play its part in helping the clean energy sector to grow, and helping all of us citizens to find it easier to play our part in the green revolution.
Let us take a quick look at what the Bill contains. Clause 1 defines the various terms used. Many of them originate in existing Acts, and these definitions have been adopted, where appropriate. Clause 2 defines the term “green energy” and specifies that the principal purpose of the Bill is to promote it. It includes energy efficiency because the energy that we do not use is the greenest energy of all. Green energy is defined as
“energy generated from renewable or small-scale low-carbon local sources”.
I hope the whole House will recognise the importance of cutting household and business fuel bills, especially at a time of recession. Clause 2 promotes the cause of alleviating fuel poverty. Work carried out by National Energy Action has shown that installing air source heat pumps in homes off the gas main can cut heating bills by 75 per cent. and CO2 emissions by 66 per cent., so green energy can also help end fuel poverty.
Clause 3 calls for the Government’s current microgeneration strategy to be reviewed. The present strategy was drawn up following the Energy Act 2004. It has worked quite well, but there is general agreement that it needs to be updated. The Government accepted that last year and are, I hope, already working on a new strategy. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that subject later in the debate. As industry sources have said,
“If we updated the microgeneration strategy, this would focus collective action, lead to investment and help create a whole new generation of jobs in retrofitting energy efficiency and microgeneration.”
I hope the Minister will also clarify the Government’s position on implementing the new feed-in tariff system for small-scale electricity generation, which offer clear rewards to people who go green. As the experience of Germany has demonstrated, this reform alone has the capacity to engage the public’s imagination, attract major investment and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Clause 4 requires the Government to review permitted development orders, with the purpose of removing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, which currently impede the installation of green energy measures in non-residential and agricultural premises. An example of the problem that the clause is intended to address is that it is currently possible for a head teacher to install a small wind turbine on his home, generally without having to get planning permission, but impossible for him to do it at his school, which is rather silly and an anomaly that the clause seeks to put right.
The inclusion of agricultural premises is, I hope, significant for the farming industry. The opportunity for farmers in this context is immense. A report from the Carbon Trust last year suggested that the rural potential of small-scale wind power is more than four times that of the potential in urban areas. But if we can harness the potential of anaerobic digestion on farms, linking biogas up to the gas grid, the consequences could be hugely beneficial as a result of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from farming and creating sustainable energy from waste.
However, I fully accept that we cannot allow a free for all. There must be safeguards against proposals that threaten to create noise nuisance or visual blight. It may well be that any review will need to consider a range of planning options to promote microgeneration projects on agricultural and non-domestic premises. The important thing is that such projects are generally promoted and not impeded by Government policy.
Clause 5 relates to permitted development rights in domestic premises. Considerable progress has been made on this issue by the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006. I had the pleasure of supporting that Bill during its progress. The Act removed much of the hassle involved in installing solar thermal or photovoltaic technologies in domestic premises, but it did not extend to micro wind installations or air source heat pumps. The Government have said that they want to put that right, and the Bill aims to do just that.
Planning obstacles, whether valid or not, have proved a major barrier to small- scale wind technology in particular. I have heard of one company that has 25,000 applications snarled up in the planning process. But again, I am not advocating a complete free for all.
The schedule sets out criteria that I recommend to the Government when considering these issues. In particular, it contains safeguards relating to noise, visual intrusion and buildings protected for heritage reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it requires microgeneration installations to comply with a certification scheme. This should deal with the problem that has arisen with wind turbines, for example, which have been installed with worthy intentions in places where they are largely ineffective because there is not enough wind.
Clause 6 is intended to encourage the Government to consider the anomaly whereby businesses and home owners who improve their property by installing green energy units may be penalised later by higher non-domestic rates or council tax valuations. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on whether he believes there is a contradiction in relevant Government policy.
Finally, this is, as I said, a modest Bill, but I hope it is a helpful one. It brings its own array of interlocking benefits. It is meant to be helpful to industry and investors, who are urgently looking for clear and simple support from legislation affecting their businesses. It is meant to be helpful to the farming industry in developing its potential as a significant source of energy generation in rural areas. It is intended to be helpful to people living in fuel poverty, and to all who are struggling to pay for electricity and heating, and who are dependent on inefficient fossil fuels; helpful to all who want to play their part in reducing CO2 emissions; and helpful to the Government in meeting their own targets on fuel poverty, renewable energy and climate change. I commend the Bill to the House."
Shadow Environment Minister Greg Barker spoke on behalf of the front bench:
"It is a great pleasure to speak from the Front Bench in support of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth).
If I had to encapsulate what the Bill is about, I would say that its message is that the microgeneration agenda has come of age. That agenda has been pulled from the fringes of politics and the energy debate into the mainstream. That is not only because of climate change, but because of how technology is advancing and how the consumer’s interest is now about becoming more involved, rather than just being a passive recipient of energy. The rising cost of old fossil fuels means that people are becoming more energy-efficient and want to play a more active role in energy production."
Mike O'Brien, Minister of State in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, offered some hope:
"I hope that we can support the Bill and ensure that it will enable the Government to build on the work that we and others in all parts of the House have done in recent years to support the development of microgeneration technologies in the United Kingdom. My discussions with the hon. Gentleman have gone well, and the Government have sympathy with many of the points in the Bill and its aspirations. There are some clauses that we do not believe are right, however, and I shall say more about that in a moment. We think that quite a lot of work needs to be done on the Bill’s detail, and I hope that—without in any way gutting it, and making sure that its thrust is taken through—we can ensure that we get a Bill that the microgeneration industry regards as positive news, that advances the green agenda, and that makes the important contribution I believe it can make to ensuring that we deal with climate change issues.
The Bill also seeks to increase the number of installations on existing buildings by means of financial and fiscal incentives and measures to promote the effective implementation of feed-in tariffs. I have already indicated our position on feed-in tariffs, and we hope to consult on that in due course. However, we are reluctant to have a vague commitment to financial measures, so we want to be much more specific about what we will do. That is one matter on which we need discussions, because, as we know, once we put a measure into statute, all sorts of things can happen with people running off to the courts, saying, “Does it mean this or does it mean that?” We need to be very clear about what we mean by the provision, and, although I am not sure that there will be a great deal of difficulty with it, let us just ensure that we reach a position with which the Government and the hon. Gentleman are content. The feed-in tariffs provide a basis for moving forward on much of that work, and I hope that the renewable heat incentive does, too."
Declaration of interest: Tom Greeves worked for Peter Ainsworth for several years.