Clean energy technology is becoming more efficient and powerful, while more money than ever is seemingly flowing into renewables. But administrative barriers thrown up by red tape and permitting bottlenecks threaten to put a damper on the energy transition
The European Commission is making moves to cut permitting delays, but it may be too little, too late
GROWTH POTENTIAL At only 40 gigawatts of new capacity a year, Europe’s renewables sector is seriously lagging behind what is required to meet international global warming targets
GO TO ZONES Several proposals to accelerate permitting under being considered
KEY QUOTE Europe no longer lacks renewables ambition, but it is now facing an implementation gap
Interest in clean energy is higher than ever before, as climate targets begin to bite and cheaper renewables offer an unavoidable alternative to more expensive fossil fuels.
New policy announcements to adopt more renewables drop seemingly on a daily basis. Countries around the Baltic Sea agreed in August 2022 to increase their combined offshore wind capacity sevenfold, Spain aims to more than quadruple its solar power reserves by 2030 and the US government plans to spend big on floating wind farms.
Renewables technology is advancing at a rate of knots too. Vestas, a Danish manufacturer, recently started testing a monster 15 megawatt (MW) offshore wind turbine, while tidal facilities and floating turbine platforms are also scaling up quickly.
Another barrier to the mass rollout of clean technology, financing, is also gradually being taken down, through a mixture of changing investor appetites and progressive policymaking by regulators around the world. The European Union, for instance, has rolled out its sustainable investment rulebook to help guide money towards climate-friendly projects, while the European Investment Bank (EIB) as part of its rebrand as a “climate bank” refuses to fund gas power.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration successfully pushed the Inflation Reduction Act through, unlocking nearly $400 billion in cash for energy security and climate change resilience initiatives. According to BloombergNEF, an energy finance research group, more and more money is flowing into decarbonisation measures like electric transport, storage and neutralising the emissions from industry across the globe.
Administrative burden The amount of paper work required to permit a wind power project is holding the sector back
But for the renewables sector, although investments have doubled over the course of a decade from $200 billion per year to $400 billion, the figure has levelled off and not grown at the rate needed to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to where they need to be by 2050.
Admittedly, $100 of renewable energy buys you much more in 2022 than in 2012, due to the plummeting price of solar and wind electrons. However, net-zero targets and the 2015 Paris Agreement’s temperature benchmarks require a much faster energy transition than the one we are currently getting.
Ember, an energy think tank, insists that the EU needs to double the pace of its wind and solar rollout in order for the Paris deal’s limit of 1.5C of global warming above 1990 levels not to be breached. New data shows that additional renewable capacity needs to top 72 gigawatts (GW) every year by 2026 in order to keep the 1.5C target alive. Current trends suggest that EU countries will not even breach 40 GW a year.
“Europe no longer lacks renewables ambition, but it is now facing an implementation gap. Higher targets have not yet translated into accelerated deployment on the ground,” warns Ember data analyst Harriet Fox. Croatia, Finland, Lithuania and Sweden are set to hit their benchmarks but the rest of the 27-strong union could struggle to install enough clean power generation. A significant reason for that is red tape in permitting processes.
Renewable facilities like wind farms and solar arrays need to run the gauntlet of permitting and approval procedures before they can be built. Environmental impact assessments need to be made and local people need to be consulted beforehand.
EU legislation says that new projects should be permitted within two years and that repowering projects—replacing existing wind turbines or solar panels with newer, more powerful models—should take just one year.
But this is not the reality, not by a long shot. According to Zoe Grainge, a senior analyst at S&P Global Commodity Insights, “Permitting is one of the single largest obstacles to renewable power build-out in Europe, including the UK.”
Data provided by Ember and trade body WindEurope shows that none of the 18 major EU countries sampled come in under the 24-month mark for onshore wind projects. Just three markets achieve it for solar power.
This translates into completion statistics that make hard reading: in Germany, the average time taken to finish a wind project is six years. In Italy and France it takes even longer, meanwhile in China it is closer to two years. In some cases, the permitting process takes up to five times longer than the law allows. Industry players explain that a combination of digitalisation issues, byzantine local authority procedures and legal appeals are hamstringing green efforts in a big way.
Spain has more than 20 GW of wind power capacity stuck in the permitting process and just 9 GW actively under construction. Poland, which wants to ditch Russian energy imports quickly, has 12 GW wrapped in red tape and just 3 GW under construction.
Nearly the same amount of solar power capacity is also mired in the Polish administrative quagmire, waiting for the right permit that will allow the plants to be connected to the national grid. The government has been urged to reform the process sooner rather than later.
Permitting is by no means a niche issue either, as United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said in September 2022, “We urgently need to put policies in place to incentivise investments and eliminate bottlenecks caused by red tape, permits and grid connections.”
It is also a matter of geopolitics and national security. In its ten-point plan on how the EU can reduce Russian gas imports, the International Energy Agency (IEA) insists that admin hurdles must be torn down. It says that 20 terrawatt-hours (TWh) of extra renewable energy could be added in the next 12 months and most of this would be utility-scale wind and solar PV projects which could be brought forward by tackling permitting delays.
“This includes clarifying and simplifying responsibilities among various permitting bodies, building up administrative capacity, setting clear deadlines for the permitting process and digitalising applications,” the report adds.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s subsequent quest to nix Russian fossil fuel imports has turbocharged energy policymaking, re-energising legislative efforts that had already been kicked off under the EU’s flagship Green Deal policy, first presented in December 2019.
The European Commission published a new strategy known as the REPowerEU plan in May 2022 in a bid to marshall the policies of the 27 member states and propose new measures to save energy and replace imports with clean alternatives.
As part of that plan, solar power installations should double by 2025, power purchase agreements (PPAs) should be streamlined and overall renewable energy should hit a 45% share by 2030. Permitting must also be improved across the board. “The duration and complexity of the permit-granting procedures greatly varies between the different renewable energy technologies and between member states,” the Commission says in the REPowerEU plan.
“Our aim is to simplify and prioritise. With our new proposal, renewable energy projects are considered as being in the overriding public interest,” EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson explained in June 2022.
Renewable energy’s new label as a matter of “overriding public interest and in the interest of public safety”, will mean that its design, permitting, construction and operation should be given priority attention by regulators.
“This is important because many wind turbine projects are subject to litigation and appeals. The notion of overriding public interest will make it easier for judges to rule in favour of wind energy when weighing its expansion against other different public interests,” explains Christoph Zipf at industry trade body WindEurope.
The Commission also urges countries to implement permitting rules already set by the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII), which stipulates that approvals should be granted within two years and that a single authority should be charged with processing them.
Other measures under consideration include “silence means agreement” or “positive administrative silence” rules, which would mean projects are automatically approved if the relevant authorities do not respond in time.
The main way that Brussels legislators are attempting to help the renewables sector navigate the permitting maze is to push national governments to be more strategic in their planning and designate so-called “go-to zones” in which to deploy clean energy.
Renewable zones would still be subject to environmental impact assessments but the projects carried out within the area would benefit from a presumption of not having significant effects on the environment. Most significantly, permitting authorities would be obligated to grant approvals within just one year in go-to zones. If eventually backed by member states, the plan could be a powerful stimulus for the sector.
The Commission says governments could either submit one plan per go-to zone or per technology type, which would incorporate more than one zone, granting authorities a bit more flexibility in how they assess potential sites. Degraded land that is not suitable for agricultural use—a nod to the ongoing fears over food supply triggered by the Ukraine invasion—industrial areas like ports and transport corridors have already been touted as easy-to-identify zones.
Lotta Pirttimaa at trade group Ocean Energy Europe, says identifying go-to zones for ocean energy should not be too challenging. “There are many studies on the resource potential and best areas for wave and tidal energy production,” says Pirttimaa.
Bodies such as the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) are key to that effort as a network of organisations that aims to collect and distribute in-depth marine data freely. Germany recently uploaded its spatial planning to EMODnet’s portal, increasing the amount of data available to users.
However, NGOs are less keen on some of the implications of go-to zones. A WWF Europe report insists that the idea, “Could be helpful, provided that these areas are based on wildlife sensitivity mapping and reliable spatial planning”, but adds that biomass and hydropower should be excluded.
The report adds that renewable projects should not be exempted from the usual impact assessments as proposed, because that would call into question the ability of authorities to monitor and evaluate infrastructure performance over time and its impact on biodiversity.
“The solution is better spatial planning, increased administrative capacity in competent authorities and effective public and stakeholder engagement—not exemptions from important environmental legislation,” says WWF’s Alex Mason.
This issue may flare up further, as EU energy ministers agreed that for repowering projects only environmental impacts that are additional to existing installations should be subject to further assessment. According to Rystad, an energy analysis company, repowering of utility-scale solar power capacity will ramp up in the late 2030s and completely take over new capacity additions by the mid-2040s, illustrating how crucial the issue is set to become in the next stage of the energy transition.
Go-to zones are not a completely new concept in energy policymaking. California’s Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP), approved in 2016, is a notable example of a regulator pinpointing areas that have a high potential for clean energy generation.
However, Alex Breckel, an infrastructure expert with the Clean Air Task Force, a global non-profit, points out that the DRECP soured the US on go-to zones, because it in effect created “no-go zones” for renewables and that permitting is actually made more complex outside of priority areas.
French utility firm EDF is also sceptical about the EU’s plan, warning that “in the absence of sufficient human resources we fear that public officials would prioritise the files related to the go-to-areas, thus creating a two-tier system.”
California dreamin’ California’s DRECP is a notable example of a regulator pinpointing areas that have a high potential for clean energy generation
POINT OF CONTACT
According to various surveys and consultations held on how to improve permitting, one of the main causes of delays and administrative headaches is the lack of a single contact point for prospective renewable energy developers. Even though EU legislation already obligates governments to designate one authority, platform or entity to handle permitting, in practice these are few and far between.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledges that member states are in breach of REDII but that there is unlikely to be legal action while the laws are being updated. Internal dialogue is also always the preferred solution.
Governments are also reportedly making progress on permitting under the auspices of the new Single Market Enforcement Taskforce, a forum set up in 2020 where EU and national officials can discuss matters that affect the functioning of the single market. However, Josefin Berg, an analysis manager at S&P Global Commodity Insights, says that measures like this, “Will take a while to trickle down to local decision makers.”
Aida Garcia, with sector association Eurelectric, insists that MEPs and governments should make further changes to the Commission’s permitting proposal during upcoming negotiations on the updated renewable energy directive (REDIII).
“Given the emergency need to deploy renewables, there should be a conditionality for member states to transpose the new permitting rules. Only 18 [out of 27] countries have so far transposed the directive,” Garcia explains. She suggests that ongoing payouts of loans and grants from the EU’s €800 billion pandemic recovery fund could be withheld if countries do not fulfil their obligations.
WindEurope insists that one-stop shops should also go hand-in-hand with digitalisation policies, as this would help permitting authorities to speed up applications and address understaffing issues. Germany, unsurprisingly perhaps for a country whose public authorities still insist on using the fax machine, is one of the main offenders in insisting developers submit requests on paper.
In one instance, a developer in Baden-Württemberg had to print out 36,000 sheets of paper just to file an application for three wind turbines. The printing and delivery costs topped €10,000, illustrating how lack of digitalisation is kryptonite for potential investors.
There are examples of good practice though. Ocean Energy Europe’s Pirttimaa points out that “Scotland has a very developed permitting process for ocean energy, with a one-stop-shop, Marine Scotland, and detailed guidelines available on their website.”
This has helped Scotland roll out impressive wind projects on and offshore, and become a leader in trialling tidal and wave technology. Developers recently connected the 1075 MW Seagreen offshore wind site to the grid, which is reportedly the deepest fixed-bottom turbine installation in the world.
Members of the European Parliament want to enshrine digitalisation further in the updated renewables directive, voting in September 2022 for updates that would obligate governments to ensure all applicants can submit their documents in digital form.
“If an applicant makes use of the digital application option, the entire permitting process including the administrative internal processes needs to be carried out digitally,” the final agreement states. Public hearings would also fall under this obligation.
PERMITTING IN PRACTICE
In the Netherlands, the government announced a target to install 70 GW of offshore wind capacity, as part of a commitment with other North Sea countries to hit 260 GW by mid-century. As part of the Dutch’s plans to electrify vast swathes of the country’s economy and produce green hydrogen in situ for domestic and export purposes, permitting reforms are also incoming.
One major allowance will be permission for offshore facilities to connect to the main grid via a single “hub point”. The government says this will both cut down on infrastructure costs and permitting times, as authorisations will not be needed.
The Netherlands won approval in September 2022 from the European Commission for its application for nearly €5 billion in financing from the EU’s €800 billion-strong pandemic recovery fund. The application commits to further reforms of the Dutch permitting process.
On the other side of the Jutland peninsula, eight countries around the Baltic Sea pledged to turbocharge their offshore wind buildout, setting a joint target of 19.6 GW by 2030, seven times the current capacity. “We will pursue faster permitting processes and strive for a balanced coexistence of economic and ecological needs,” states the declaration, signed by the prime ministers and presidents of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.
In a separate document signed by energy ministers, the “Baltic 8” agreed to accelerate permitting processes for new renewable energy generators and the grid infrastructure at a national and EU-level including reinforcements necessary for balancing variable renewables and removing internal bottlenecks.
France is also betting big on renewables finally, opening its first large-scale offshore wind farm in September 2022. However, utility firm EDF warns that “administrative procedures are too long, mainly because of not enough public agents to process permit applications efficiently and on time.” The company adds that “the balance between biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation needs to be improved.”
In Ireland, permitting is also an issue and is one of the main hurdles preventing the gusty island from achieving the government’s informal objective of becoming “the Saudi Arabia of wind energy”. “The statutory objective is for an [onshore] wind farm application or appeal to be decided in 18 weeks. However, the average time for a decision is actually 60 weeks,” says Justin Moran from Wind Energy Ireland, an industry body.
Ireland’s offshore sector is only in its infancy, despite massive potential, and waiting times for a licence needed to map the foreshore are stretching beyond 18 months. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the turnaround time is between 12 and 15 weeks. “We have the pipeline of projects to deliver our targets. We have the investment. There are clear plans in place to reinforce the grid. But we cannot build them if we cannot get them through the planning system,” Moran adds.
Change is coming. Recruiting new staff is a challenge but more resources are being funnelled toward permitting divisions and the government is due to publish new reform legislation before the end of 2022. There are also plans to set up a one-stop shop for applications and a new court tasked with overseeing environmental and planning issues.
Spain, meanwhile, is working towards its target of 74% renewable power and 42% total renewable energy by 2030 by streamlining procedures. In a Royal Decree published in March 2022, new provisions for permits and grid access were written into law.
The new system offers fast-track permitting for clean energy projects that exceed 50 MW but come in under 75 MW for wind and 150 MW for solar. They must still demonstrate that they do not pose a threat of unacceptable impact on the local environment and cannot be marine-based.
New projects can also apply for a suspension of grid access permits during a grace period, which is aimed specifically at solar power installations.
ACROSS THE POND
The Biden administration’s success in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, a pared-down and retooled version of the more comprehensive Build Back Better initiative, has also prompted a rethink of how permitting is handled.
This is not just because the White House wants to deploy 30 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in updating the country’s outdated electricity grids. There is a more pressing political need to address permitting.
In return for eventually backing the IRA, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—who had manoeuvred himself into a kingmaking position—won a major concession from the White House to support his push to reform energy project authorisation procedures.
Under Manchin’s proposed bill, designating projects as in the national interest—similar to what the EU would like to achieve—would be streamlined. It would also set maximum permitting deadlines and establish a single inter-agency review process.
However, Manchin’s reform push faces an uncertain future, as enough Democrats and Republicans banded together in September 2022 to block the bill. The former opposed perks for fossil fuel developers—a gas pipeline in Manchin’s home state would benefit greatly—while the latter essentially wanted to punish the senator for helping pass the IRA into law in the first place.
Paradoxically, permitting reform has been a priority for Republicans for a number of years. Manchin’s next chance to win support for the bill will likely come after November’s midterm elections or in December, as part of a government spending bill. •
ILLUSTRATION Luke Best
PHOTO Sterling Lanier
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