NICOLA Sturgeon is holding out the prospect of a new era of cheaper energy bills with the creation of a publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company.

The First Minister said the new company would be set up within the current Holyrood parliament and offer a new choice of supplier, with consumers paying “as close to cost price as possible”.

The ambitious plan was the most eye-catching in a series of announcements made by Ms Sturgeon in her closing address to the annual SNP conference in Glasgow.

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Scottish ministers already own one utility - Scottish Water - and publicly owned energy companies, such as Sweden’s Vattenfall, are common across Europe.

Nottingham City Council also operates not-for-profit Robin Hood Energy, which was launched two years ago and sells gas and electricity to customers across the UK.

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Keen to avoid a repeat of Theresa May’s conference meltdown last week, the First Minister appeared before delegates at the SEC holding a box of cough lozenges.

“At the risk of tempting fate, I’ve come prepared,” she joked.

On the constitution, she said the SNP would "always make the case for independence", but supporters also had to be patient, with no decision on timing until Brexit came into focus.

She said the idea behind the energy company was “simple”, with the state-owned company acting as a selfless middle-man between energy wholesalers and customers.

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She said: “Energy would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland - renewable, of course - and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible.

“No shareholders to worry about. No corporate bonuses to consider.

“It would give people - particularly those on low incomes - more choice and the option of a supplier whose only job is to secure the lowest price for consumers.”

She said details would be published in the government’s Energy Strategy later this year.

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Richard Leonard, the left-wing candidate for Scottish Labour leader, said Ms Sturgeon was “clearly driven by her fear of Jeremy Corbyn” and had copied his energy company idea.

Theresa May has said she will cap energy prices to stop “rip-off” bills for consumers.

The Tories accused Ms Sturgeon of promising “jam tomorrow”.

Scottish Government officials were unable to basic questions on the energy company.

Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman was unsure if it would supply only electricity or would offer gas as well, and whether electricity would only be sourced from renewables.

He was also unable to say if would also supply only Scotland or the whole of the UK.

The SNP’s Holyrood manifesto last year spoke of research into a company helping “the growth of local and community energy projects”, rather than a competitor to ScottishPower.

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Ms Sturgeon’s speech, which was interrupted by several standing ovations, was designed to show the SNP was still vigorous and open to new ideas after a decade in power.

It was also meant to put the party back on the front foot after the loss of 21 MPs in June.

In a rash of announcements, Ms Sturgeon confirmed Scotland’s first Low Emission Zone would be set up in Glasgow, with polluting vehicles charged if they enter the city centre.

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She confirmed spending on free childcare would double to £840m a year by 2020 in order to double the number of hours per week to 30.

She also said that as part of a care system “with love at its heart” the government would legislate to exempt young people leaving care from council tax to help them find a roof.

Sanitary products would be provided free in schools, colleges and universities next year.

She said Scotland was “leading by example” within the UK on progressive policies, while Labour were divided and the Conservatives were morally bankrupt.

On independence, she was markedly more cautious than MP Mhairi Black earlier in the day, who had said the party must not lose heart and put the issue “on the back burner”.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I have always said Scotland should have the right to choose our future when the terms of Brexit are clear. We have a mandate to give the people that choice.

“But exercising it must be done with the best interests of all of Scotland at heart.

“People want clarity about Brexit first and we respect that.

“But to all of you here in this hall and across the country who are impatient for change, let me say this. We may not know exactly when the choice will be made.

“But we can, we must, and we will make the case for independence always.”

She also attacked the EU for failing to speak out against Spanish police violence in Catalonia during the disputed independence referendum earlier this month.

“When the people of Catalonia - EU citizens - were violently attacked by police just for trying to vote, the EU should have spoken up, loudly, to condemn it.”

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And there was a threat to councils that the government would claw back funding intended for a £3bn affordable house building programme if they tried to divert it to services.

She said: “On money for housing - if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”

She also paid tribute to the late SNP leader Gordon Wilson, who died in June aged 79.

“He kept the flame alive,” she said. “We all of us owe him a deep debt of gratitude.”

Reacting to the energy company announcement, Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “We would welcome any intervention that genuinely increases fairness for energy consumers.”

Lawrence Slade, chief executive of the industry body Energy UK, said: “There are now over 50 suppliers in the energy market, offering more choice than ever for customers.

“We welcome new entrants to the market, which increases competition and benefits consumers by driving innovation, investment and improvements to customer service, as well as keeping downward pressure on prices.”

A ScottishPower spokesperson added: “We welcome new entrants into this vibrant market.”

Tory MSP Maurice Golden said: “The First Minister once again showed that the SNP simply doesn’t do humility. Despite all the broken promises over the last ten years in power, she made it clear she thinks she can book in for another decade based on promises of yet more jam tomorrow. Lacking in humility and failing to listen to people - it’s the same old SNP.”

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Interim Scottish Labour leader Alex Rowley said the SNP were “desperate for fresh ideas” and so had stolen Labour’s and tried to pass them off as their own.

He said: “Nicola Sturgeon is clearly worried about a Labour party offering radical change within the UK. Having attempted to photocopy Labour policies Nicola Sturgeon now faces the real test – outlining how she will pay for them.”

Herald View: Sturgeon shows she is prepared to listen to voters

Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie said: “The First Minister’s speech showed yet again how Greens are leading the change in our society, pushing the SNP beyond its comfort zone on everything from publicly-owned energy to lifting the public sector pay cap.”

Scottish Labour leadership candidate Anas Sarwar added: “This was a tired speech from a tired leader who has run out of ideas and is running out of time in government. Nicola Sturgeon’s policies were either rehashed announcements or simply stolen from Labour.”