Biomass Energy [24 February 2016]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for bringing forward this debate and for his continued work on biomass and renewable energy. I hope we can put cross-party pressure on the Government to do the right thing by the electorate of the United Kingdom.

It will be apparent to everyone present today that unabated climate change presents a major challenge to legislators in the UK and across the world. We must address the environmental health of our planet and the decarbonisation of our energy supply as priorities. Tackling the problem will require an unprecedented level of international co-operation. In some instances, our best course of action is to provide a positive example for other nations to follow, and I am proud of what Scotland has been able to achieve so far.
The Scottish Government are on track to meet their 42% emissions reduction target by 2020, and around half of Scotland’s current energy consumption is supplied by renewable wind power. We have also outperformed the UK on total emission reductions from a 1990 baseline in every year since 2010, and Sweden is the only European Union state to have outperformed Scotland. Professor Jim Skea, a member of the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change said:

“If you divide where Scotland is now, versus where it was in 1990, it is actually among the world leaders. That is unambiguous.”

The Scottish Government aim to have 100% of our electricity consumption generated from renewable sources by 2020. If we are to meet that ambitious target, biomass must play a key role in that transition. I welcome the Scottish Government’s strong commitment to this energy source.

Thanks in part to that support, over 2,000 jobs in Scotland are now based in the biomass sector, and Scottish Renewables believes that the industry has

“massive potential for growth in the future.”

West Coast Woodfuels, a company located in my constituency of Inverclyde, is one such organisation, and it shows the potential for growth in the biomass sector. Founded by farmer Alastair McIntyre, it produces woodchip that is dried in specialised kilns and stored on site. The raw timber for the operation comes primarily from local and sustainable sources. The rise in demand means that the company is now selling its product to a range of public and private sector customers. The example of West Coast Woodfuels shows that biomass is most efficient as a source of energy when the producer and customer are located close to each other. The environmental benefits of biomass are reduced if stocks of wood are hauled great distances across the country to be turned into woodchip, only to be transported on as a source of fuel. A strong local market for biomass fuel, close to producers, minimises carbon emissions and is a healthier option for our environment.
The economic benefits to our local economies should also be self-evident. Biomass plants create jobs in the construction, operation and maintenance of facilities. Employment opportunities are also created in the supply chain, not only through transportation but in growing and harvesting raw materials. The benefits extend beyond the biomass industry and into the wider renewables sector. A report issued by NERA and Imperial College London concluded that biomass

“is a reliable and flexible power source that provides firm capacity. Including biomass as part of the generation mix is likely to lower the costs associated with adding more wind and solar power to the system. This means that it can enable the integration of other intermittent renewable technologies (by providing back up generation), and help to facilitate the phasing out of old coal-fired power stations, whose closure is putting pressure on security of supply.”

If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of the biomass sector, adequate support must be forthcoming from the UK Government.

I share the concerns of those in the renewables sector that the decline in UK Government support not only prevents the industry from meeting its full potential, but damages investor confidence. Had the UK Government maintained their previous levels of support, the viability of many projects would not be in question. The cuts undermine Scotland’s renewables ambition, they are bad for our environment, and they are hurting businesses and consumers in my constituency.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was widespread disappointment at the Government’s bringing forward of the closure date for the renewable heat incentive? It has caused problems for the poultry sector and major difficulties for many farmers, who will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman has either read my mind or read my speech over my shoulder, because I was about to move on to the renewable heat incentive. I was particularly disappointed by the Chancellor’s announcement that spending on the RHI would be some £690 million less than previously forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK Government’s own reports have shown that the RHI has been an important tool in pushing forward the decarbonisation agenda. Data issued by the Department of Energy and Climate Change found that two thirds of users would not have installed renewable heat technology without the RHI. It is therefore difficult to understand why the UK Government feel it necessary to make these changes, which are being imposed against expert industry advice and to the detriment of jobs, investment and the environment.

I regret that we can only scratch the surface of this broad subject in the time available today. I would like to discuss a range of further issues given the opportunity, including how best to incentivise biomass use, address air quality concerns and ensure biomass producers are fairly treated through the tendering and procurement process. Most importantly, I want to see the UK Government abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables.

David Mowat
The hon. Gentleman has a list of things that the UK Government need to do to enable Scotland to meet its ambitious renewables targets, but, as of this morning, we have a fiscal framework. Is he aware that the Scottish Government intend to put money into such schemes? Presumably they can now do that.

I have not read the entirety of the fiscal framework at this point in time, but there are some issues that are reserved and will have to be handled through Westminster.

David Mowat
Maybe I am misinformed, but my understanding is that this is a reserved matter, but the Scottish Government will be free to invest in their own choices. If this was one of those choices, they could do so.

The Scottish Government will now have more powers to raise taxes and spend tax revenue as they feel fit for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
My understanding of the devolution framework is that when something is within the competence of the UK Government, the Scottish Government are unable to invest in it. There are specific exemptions in the Scotland Bill for topping up benefits, but there is nothing about energy. We are talking in a purely hypothetical way about something that is impossible.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair)
Order. It is not really in order to intervene on an intervention, unless Mr Cowan allows you to do so. Are you allowing Mr Mowat to intervene, Mr Cowan?

I was simply slow in getting back to my feet; I have absolutely no issue with the hon. Gentleman intervening. It is a topic of conversation, but when Scotland is independent, we will then take care of our own energy resources and will use them in a way that is most efficient for the people of Scotland. Until that time, there are certain issues that will remain reserved to Westminster and we will have limited power over what we can do about it.
Most importantly, I want the UK Government to abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables. Scotland is ambitious and we take the responsibility to tackle climate change seriously. It is time for the UK Government to do likewise.