Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 209 - 219)




  209. Minister, good afternoon. Thank you for finding the time to come along to the Science and Technology Select Committee, with your new ministerial briefing. We welcome you very much indeed. I wonder if, before I put the first question, you would be kind enough either to introduce your two colleagues or, perhaps, invite them to introduce themselves?

  (Mr Hain) Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I say what a pleasure it is to be in front of you, especially a Committee with a lot of scientific expertise on it, and I look forward to developing the case. John Doddrell heads our Renewable Energy Unit, and Jeremy Eppel is from the DETR, with responsibilities in the same area.

  210. Thank you very much indeed. Can I ask you, Minister, if the Government is on course to meet its target of 10 per cent of sustainable electric energy generation and 20 per cent of carbon dioxide emission reduction by 2010? Ten per cent up on generation and 20 per cent down on CO2?
  (Mr Hain) We are certainly on course in respect of the obligation to reach the 10 per cent objective on renewable sources in terms of our overall electricity supply. The renewables obligation is a powerful driver because it requires, as you are aware, every electricity supplier, by the time the instrument comes into force—which is planned for 1 October—to have, over time, 10 per cent of its capacity from renewables. So I think we can achieve that, but there is a long way to go. We are up, now, to 2.8 per cent of energy supplies from renewables—

  211. And nine years to go.
  (Mr Hain) And nine years to go. Obviously, on CO2 emissions, again, we are working very hard to achieve that objective and I think we are well advanced compared with many other countries.

  212. To help us in this Inquiry, could you indicate to us, as of this moment, if you cannot indicate anything else, which of the renewable energies that are most likely to give you a sizeable part of this 10 per cent from sustainable energy?
  (Mr Hain) Offshore wind is, perhaps, the leading new area at the moment. Biomass will also be an important contributor. I am myself, which is why I very much welcome this Inquiry of yours, very much a trail blazer for renewable energy. I think that it has a great potential for contributing in the future beyond the end of the decade well above the 10 per cent limit, provided we give it the necessary impetus and the necessary support, and provided we also recognise that if we are to create Britain as a leading knowledge-based economy in the world then, in an energy sense, the renewable sector is probably the area where we have the most potential in that respect as well. Far too often in the past British inventions, British science and British technological capacity has not had the support either from Government or the wider community, and so we have often trail-blazed in the scientific sense but not carried it through into production and, in this respect, fulfilled a vital strategic need as well.

  213. We blaze the trail but we do not make the road.
  (Mr Hain) Indeed, or the waves.

  214. You move us nicely on to the next question I wanted to ask. You did say that you hoped that after 2010 there will be a continuation of this aim to have a higher proportion of energy coming from sustainable sources. Have you any plans to set targets after 2010? If you have not, could I point out to you that setting targets might not only help Government to know where it is going but it would certainly encourage research councils and researchers in their projects if they know that Government has got a secondary target after 2010—say, 2020. It would give them encouragement and determination to keep going.
  (Mr Hain) Of course, the renewables obligation does provide an assured market until 2026. So that is why it is a powerful driver beyond the end of the decade. The whole future of renewable energy is something under active consideration. I do not think, if I may say so, Chairman, that we have always given it the priority that it deserves and requires which, in my view, we are obliged to do given the long-term shortage of energy supply, environmental considerations and so forth. Even as a Government, although we have done more than any other government with £250 million now earmarked over the next three years for various forms of project support, research and development support and so on, I think that we have to step up the impetus. Certainly the next Government must carry that baton forward with renewed vigour.

  215. When you answered one of my questions you indicated that offshore wind and biomass were the two most likely areas, but you did not mention a wave contribution. Could I ask what has been learnt from the Government's wave energy programme that ran from 1974 to 1982? You will notice that is a carefully non-political question because it is 1974 to 1982, over two governments, so there is no political bias in the question.
  (Mr Hain) Chairman, the Committee is always neutral. Perhaps I will ask my officials to assist on this since I was not even in Parliament at the time. I was disappointed—and I make no party point in return—that the support and assistance for wave and tidal stream energy was abandoned in 1994, then it was resurrected. It followed the report of an independent committee which recommended that this should be the case, but we picked it up again in 1999. I think it is very clear from the potential which we have discovered already (which I am happy to go into) that this has got great potential in the future. Perhaps I can ask Mr Doddrell to assist on that.

  216. I do not think we have time to go into massive detail, but we would just like to be reassured that we had some exciting projects in the 1980s or thereabouts, including Salter's `duck', and so on. We all thought these things were going to go somewhere and then, for technological reasons, they did not. I just hope some lessons were learned from them, and I would be delighted to hear from Mr Doddrell.
  (Mr Doddrell) Thank you, Mr Chairman. I think that the deciding rationale to discontinue the programme at that time was one of economics, and the prospects of wave energy coming in and being competitive with other energy sources, even other renewable sources, at that time did not look promising. The decision to discontinue was therefore one taken on economic grounds. With hindsight, it was clearly a mistake. I was not around, either, then, like the Minister, but there were lessons learned from those projects. Some of them have been on hold and the same people are now active again with renewed support from the Government, and we are working closely with them as to how we can now take them forward.

  Chairman: That is a very frank answer, if I may say so, that you have learnt from what happened in the past, and looking back at it again with a little bit of hindsight you realise that some things that might have been able to continue were not allowed to, and you will pick them up and run with them.

Dr Jones

  217. Can I ask whether the DTI was pro-nuclear during that time?
  (Mr Doddrell) I do not think that the nuclear issue had anything to do with this decision; it was an independent committee that looked and evaluated the programme, and looked at the economics of wave energy. To the best of my knowledge, nuclear energy had nothing to do with that decision.

Dr Turner

  218. Minister, recent reports have stated that the UK, with its excellent wave resources, very strong tides and offshore engineering skills base from the North Sea oil industry, has the perfect combination and perfect opportunity to become world leader in wave and tidal energy, with all that that implies. Do you agree with those statements?
  (Mr Hain) I do agree with them. I think the geographical situation, surrounded by stormy waters, as well as the innovative research and development projects which we have seen develop (and I am happy to go into those) place us in a position to lead the world on wave power and, also, on tidal stream energy. That combination of factors of scientific and technological development, coupled with our natural advantages, means that I think we have responsibility, as a Government, to help industry secure that leading role and, therefore, help Britain contribute not just to its own energy needs but to export the expertise right across the world.

  219. That leads perfectly to the next question, Minister, which is could you then outline the long-term research and development strategy that you propose to adopt to bring forward wave and tidal energy, bearing in mind the Prime Minister's recent speech promising a green industrial revolution?
  (Mr Hain) Indeed. Of course, in that speech he announced an additional £100 million in support for renewable energy—active support—some of which will come in the way of wave and tidal stream. In terms of the detailed research support we are giving, this is of course part of the £55 million budget specifically earmarked for research and development in renewables. The budget this year is £14 million, and then £55.5 million over the next three years. That is general, right across renewables. In terms of wave and tidal stream, we are presently supporting seven wave energy projects and one tidal stream project, a total value of £1.86 million, with the DTI contribution of £1.27 million. Then the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has 10 wave and energy tidal stream projects in place with a total value of just over £1.1 million—part, obviously, public funding. In addition, within the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme, wave and tidal stream projects co-ordinated by British companies currently amount to 2.6 million euros. We cover a number of areas, including further development of existing design concepts, research to tackle key development issues and monitoring prototype devices. The EPSRC has, of course, an emphasis on fundamental research, and we are involved in peer review and oversight of those projects. We have got closer links with the EPSRC and we are currently in discussion with them on how to take forward our support, especially in this area.

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