Energy-intensive Industries

Jack Brereton Excerpts
Wednesday 24th November 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind hon. Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered energy intensive industries.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to have secured this timely debate. As we continue to emerge from the economic hit of the covid crisis and as financial activity builds and grows, energy prices are noticeably higher and our constituents are feeling the pinch. We have seen domestic suppliers go bust, and jobs and product affordability have been threatened by the cost of energy to businesses. The short-term issue of price volatility is exacerbated by longer-term issues of energy production and energy efficiency.

Today, I will set out the issues facing industries that rely on the intensive use of energy, not least the ceramics industry, for which the Potteries are internationally famous. It is worth remembering that to be the world capital of ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent needed to be not just a city of pots and clay, but a city of pits. The energy requirements to fire ceramics at extreme temperatures are intense, and it was local coal—as well as clay—that fired kilns historically.

Times change and coal firing is now, thankfully, a thing of the past. The last such firing was literally a museum piece, organised by the fantastic Gladstone Pottery Museum in my constituency at the Sutherland works of Hudson & Middleton in 1978. It is a good thing that coal firing is a long-lost practice. We should not over-romanticise the scenes of smoke billowing from hundreds of bottle kilns, which came at the human cost of debilitating industrial illnesses such as miner’s lung and potter’s rot, but neither should we look to close the industry down or leave it to wither on the vine, as the last Labour Government did, when massive household names, including Spode, Tams and Royal Doulton, were lost during their time in office.

The ceramics industry was born out of the innovation of Josiah Wedgwood and, while some processes from that time survive, the industry has continuously been one of innovation, with producers often competing to deliver even greater efficiencies. Just as the ceramics industry has had to adapt and adjust from the use of coal to the use of gas and electricity, it is currently adapting and innovating to the ongoing shift from gas. We should support it and other energy-intensive industries in doing so.

As a whole, the energy-intensive industries of steel, chemicals, paper, glass, cement and lime, industrial gases and ceramics contribute £38 billion annually to UK GDP, according to figures from the Energy Intensive Users Group. The group notes that the industries provide 200,000 jobs directly and support 800,000 indirectly. Those are not jobs that we should lose to international competitors with lower environmental standards than our own, lower ambitions for carbon reduction or higher interventionism.

There is an urgency to ensuring that energy-intensive industries survive in the UK, due to the real and present danger of the volatility in world energy markets. It would be a tragedy if short-term price pressures were allowed to undermine British industry just at a time when order books are recovering strongly from covid and firms are looking to take on more skilled staff. Just as there is a need to keep industrial jobs in Britain, we need to make sure that the existing orders for goods stay on the books of British firms.

Competitor countries are providing support and are ready to seize the market share. Worryingly, that includes competitors with less exposure to world energy markets and scant regard for enforcing environmental protections. In ceramics, it is worth being clear what that risk is.

The renaissance of the ceramics industry since 2010 is a great British success story, with the sector’s gross value added doubling in real terms from 2009 to 2019, according to the House of Commons Library. Ceramics is particularly important in the midlands economy. Some 60% of direct employment in the sector is within the midlands engine, and most is concentrated in the Staffordshire Potteries, focused on Stoke-on-Trent. The sector’s products encompass everything from crockery to electrical components, bricks to agricultural filters, sanitaryware to armoured plating, tiles to prosthetic joints, and pipes to works of fine art.

I have previously visited Ross Ceramics in Newstead in my constituency, which has expertise in the manufacture of complex geometry ceramic cores, which are used in the casting process of jet engine components for aerospace and other industrial uses. It is world-leading engineering. Far from being an industry of the past, modern manufacturing in advanced ceramic technologies is securing the future of skilled employment on good wages in and around north Staffordshire, but firms that usually face one third of their total production costs from energy are suddenly finding that two thirds of costs are from energy.

The industry has long militated against price shocks by buying energy in advance, but many were stung by the pandemic, finding that they had excess energy at a time of restricted demand for ceramic production, and taking a loss on selling back that energy. Things have now boomeranged completely. Firms that had held off from buying energy early for this winter—for fear of further lockdowns hitting demand—now face severe financial difficulties. Firms with full order books operating at 100% capacity have none the less had to contemplate shutting down early in December, out of fear that it will be cheaper to pay employees not to work than to incur the costs of the necessary amount of gas and electricity to fire products at 1,000°C or more.

I note that Portugal, a direct competitor for tile manufacturers, has recently introduced a 30% reduction in the network access tariff for the ceramics sector. That is just one example. Many countries around the world have taken such steps to support energy-intensive industries that have high costs. The industry’s electricity prices in the UK are some of the highest in Europe and are becoming uncompetitive. Additionally, although many of our manufacturers use electricity to generate heat, others who could switch to decarbonise are deterred from doing so by the high cost of commercial electricity on top of the capital investment that would be needed.

I am encouraged that the Government’s industrial decarbonisation strategy of April this year recognises the dangers and undesirability of simply offshoring production, or ceding it to competitors, as a route to getting the UK’s overall emissions down. Of course, the Government have devised the energy-intensive industries exemption scheme, which is great for businesses that qualify for it. Unfortunately, many of the industries in Staffordshire are excluded at the first hurdle from what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has dubbed the “sector-level test”. Specifically, that means businesses within NACE codes 23.41, 23.42 and 23.43, which cover household ceramics and ornaments, sanitaryware and insulators. Those codes need to join other NACE codes in the ceramics sector that, thankfully, are within the eligibility criteria—namely 23.20, which covers refractory products; 23.31, which is ceramic tiles and flags; 23.32, which is bricks and so on in baked clay; 23.44, which is other technical ceramic products; and 23.49, which is other ceramic products.

If we see the industrial decarbonisation strategy as a herald of the Government’s intention for a serious investigation of the longer-term measures needed to support industry as it transitions to lower-carbon energy, we need to look at how the parallel doubling of public research and development investment can benefit energy intensive industries. That will be necessary to improve efficiency, to encourage a move towards more electric firing and to develop hydrogen as the solution for the larger high-powered kilns where electricity is not an option.

There is a pressing need for an investment strategy for R&D in the energy transition for the midlands engine ceramics cluster, which is just as important as those in London and the Oxford-Cambridge arc who have for far too long received disproportionately high public R&D funding. Public R&D funding is particularly needed in a sector such as ceramics, given the high number of small and medium-sized enterprises—as much as 97% of the sector, according to the British Ceramic Confederation. Even firms that do pass the sector-level test for the energy-intensive industry scheme have difficulty passing the business-level test, due to the smaller-sized enterprises typical of the sector—even firms with worldwide brand recognition.

When certain qualification thresholds for energy-related assistance are set at tens of millions of pounds per work site, the ceramics industry loses out. A sum of £1 million per site would be more realistic. The use of NACE codes could, as has already been demonstrated, target lower thresholds at the ceramics industry for its particular characteristics and configuration.

I know that the Government recognise their responsibility to step up to the plate. Only this Monday, the Government announced £9.4 million to back a trailblazing hydrogen-storage project near Glasgow, helping to create high-skilled jobs. Last week, the Royal Navy issued a market exploration notice to seek hybridisation of the fleet, seeking private sector expertise for a public sector commission to reduce emissions by 20% to 40% by 2030.

The week before that, the RAF announced that it had secured a Guinness world record, no less, for the world’s first successful flight using only synthetic fuel, in partnership with Zero Petroleum Ltd. There was also confirmation this month of the highly significant £200 million Government investment in the Rolls-Royce small modular reactor—an exciting development that could create 40,000 jobs and secure many more in the supply chain, including at Goodwin International in Stoke-on-Trent, which leads the way in British precision engineering.

Sources of intense energy with low to zero carbon emissions are one clear way forward for heavy industries. Another is carbon capture and heat capture. The Minister will know that Stoke-on-Trent leads the way with a district heat network to use deep geothermal energy to heat our city and save thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, benefiting residents, education providers and businesses alike.

We can go further; I know that our local industries want to go further, but they need support to do so. Keele University, in our neighbouring borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, has not only worked with EQUANS, part of the ENGIE Group, to generate and store energy from wind and solar on campus; it has also worked with Cadent Gas to demonstrate that hydrogen can be blended at up to 20% into the natural gas network, with no adverse effects for users. The consequent reduction in carbon emissions is obvious, but with hydrogen being six times as combustible as natural gas, public reassurance on safety will be paramount.

Fortunately, Keele and Cadent found in their year-long trial that it is safe to use a 20% hydrogen mix, saving 27 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the process. Rolling that out to the domestic market nationally could remove from the atmosphere the equivalent emissions of taking 2.5 million cars off the road, all without changes to current gas heating and cooking appliances. For any new fuel source tested in private homes and campus buildings, as happened with the Keele-Cadent trial, there is a need to research the effects on ceramic and other industrial production, not least because glazes can respond very sensitively.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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The hon. Member is making a good speech. Does he agree that it is high time the Government changed the regulations on hydrogen blending to allow that to happen in the gas network? At the moment, the gas management safety regulations do not allow any blending above 2%, which is contrary to the Government’s own hydrogen strategy.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know that the Government are looking at that. Further trials at scale are being looked at—in Newcastle, I believe—to be undertaken by Cadent. I am sure that that will lead to further changes and to developments of hydrogen mix within the industry.

As I was saying, it is important to do that testing for energy-intensive industries, not least because glazes can respond sensitively to firing conditions, such as temperature and humidity. For that reason, I am glad to say that certain offshore production lines have looked to return to Stoke-on-Trent from locations with different climatic conditions that simply do not create the pristine quality of ceramic goods one gets from Stoke-on-Trent. I have been pleased to discuss with Cadent the importance of fully scientifically trialling and testing the impact of hydrogen mix, and I know that Cadent has been looking into this further with Lucideon, which leads the industry in ceramics research and material science.

I have argued for several years that we need an international research institute—a ceramic park—based in Stoke-on-Trent to institutionalise the myriad projects and advances, not least the work of Lucideon, to develop hydrogen kilns, which I am pleased to say recently secured UK Research and Innovation funding. What we need now is a dedicated research facility as a base for those projects for the industry, with Lucideon as the anchor. Glass Futures in St Helens is one example of what might be achievable by learning from another energy-intensive industry.

I am sure that the British Ceramic Confederation will have engaged with the Minister about its ambition for a similar world-leading centre of excellence for the world capital of ceramics. Indeed, as the BCC will point out, the sector has been working on recycling waste heat for decades, such as by pre-heating spray dryers with exhaust gases or heating spaces via heat exchangers on tunnel kilns. This is not a sector that wants to waste anything, and where it is economically viable, energy and carbon efficiency has been invested in for decades.

I should note that one such improvement comes from switching from intermittent to continuous kilns. One of the dangers of today’s very high energy prices is that kilns may need to be shut down completely and then restarted, which is far more complicated and dangerous than it sounds, with wide-ranging consequences. However, innovation must continue. That means supporting the development of new technologies, providing incentives for large-scale investment in proven technologies, and creating a regulatory framework that supports decarbonisation alongside the international competitiveness of UK industry. Some of the new technologies are almost there, but there are issues to overcome. For example, we have to overcome tar build-up or moisture content, depending on the fuel innovation; resist corrosion for acidic kiln exhaust gases; and avoid emissions of nitrogen oxides.

The need to produce and distribute hydrogen on a large scale must be fully researched, not least because hydrogen is also being touted as a fuel of the future for everything from JCBs to trains, including the freight trains that will bring the fine white china clay into the Potteries and will hopefully take more products out in the future. The Government want demand for hydrogen to be high, so they must ensure that the market conditions are right for a ready fuel supply. Interestingly, I note that as part of the Government’s industrial fuel-switching competition, BEIS funded a £3.2-million project led by the Mineral Products Association and Hanson UK to trial a mix of 100% net zero fuels, including hydrogen, meat and bone meal and glycerine, for commercial-scale cement in Lancashire for the very first time this September. Let us see more of those sorts of trials covering more of our energy-intensive industries.

In conclusion, I am happy that we have a Government who have enabled manufacturing to resurge in the UK, particularly the British ceramics sector. Modern and advanced manufacturing is a key provider of high-skilled, well-paid employment across Stoke-on-Trent—not just in ceramics, but emblematically so, as it is the world capital of that industry. We are on the cusp of very big advances in low-emission energy, and we need to seize the opportunities without taking our eye off the ball of the short-term dangers of price volatility in traditional fuel markets. Energy-intensive industries are spread right across the country, and are crucial to realising the higher-skill, higher-wage economy that will level up opportunities. I look forward to the Minister’s response detailing how the Government will meet the challenges ahead.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (in the Chair)
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It looks like we have in the region of seven Back Benchers wanting to contribute, so if Members could do the maths and work out how many minutes they have, that would be much appreciated.

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Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton
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I thank the Minister for the great interest he is taking in these sectors. I hope to welcome him very soon to Stoke-on-Trent.

These jobs are so important for levelling up across the country. They are skilled, well-paid employment opportunities. As a number of Members have said, it is vital that we see a level playing field on energy. We have seen huge competition from Europe, which subsidises a number of markets, and from China, which puts huge subsidies into many of these sectors. We need support to make sure we have a level playing field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) noted, there is no level playing field at the moment—there is not a free market in these sectors—and we need to address that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, the costs are beyond what many of these industries can reasonably plan for. We need action and support to make sure that we have a level playing field, so that these sectors continue to build on their strengths and that we continue to see these important jobs and industries in the UK. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his kind words about Stoke-on-Trent, which is ably represented here.

I also want to touch on the importance of levelling up in R&D investment. There is increased investment in R&D now, with a doubling of R&D spending in the UK. We need to see more of that being spent in the midlands, in the north and in Wales. A huge proportion of R&D spending has been in the south and other parts of the UK. We need to spread it out across the country, particularly for the energy-intensive sectors such as ceramics, which need that support to transition and to decarbonise, to secure those jobs for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered energy intensive industries.