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A permitting issue of environmental concern

To find locations for new onshore wind farms in Europe, developers are now being forced to consider sites that come with added complexities, such as those in the Natura 2000 network.

Endangered red-breasted geese are at the centre of legal battle over permit for wind farm in Bulgaria (pic:Tyler Brenot)
Endangered red-breasted geese are at the centre of legal battle over permit for wind farm in Bulgaria (pic:Tyler Brenot)

These are wildlife areas with legal environmental protection orders (see below).

There is no European ban on wind-farm development on Natura 2000 sites, which cover more than a third of the land of some EU states, but those who have tried to to gain a permit have encountered problems.

The European Commission published guidance in 2010 expressly stating that appropriately sited and well-designed wind farms are not a threat to wildlife. Yet, a recent study by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) found that only two countries in the EU — Bulgaria and Greece — actually use the guidance to counter arguments against any development. Other member states were either unaware of the document, said it had "too little influence", or drafted national guidance that ignored the EU advice.

Some countries have effectively banned wind farms from Natura 2000 sites. The Hungarian Wind Energy Association says these and other protected sites pose a significant barrier to investors, with environmental approvals taking up to a year. In Estonia wind projects in these areas tend to be rejected following environmental impact assessments.

 

Natura 2000 areas

Natura 2000 map

These protected areas are often in regions with good wind resource and cover large proportions of land. "It is causing significant issues," says Remi Gruet, senior regulatory affairs adviser at EWEA.

In a report on emerging markets in eastern Europe published in February, EWEA found that problems associated with Natura 2000 site permits were causing the wind industry considerable difficulties. Slovenia, for example, has identified the potential for 600MW wind by 2020. However, as a result of its high population density and small size, combined with the fact that Natura 2000 sites cover more than 35% of its land, the country has yet to install a single megawatt.

Some EU member states have proposed tightening restrictions. Bulgaria's economic ministry is reviewing a recommendation to stop processing requests for project approvals in Natura 2000 sites, according to EWEA, even though 34% of the country's land is covered by the designation and many of the protected areas are in the regions with the highest wind potential.

Wind-power producers in Bulgaria are not automatically excluded from Natura 2000 protected areas, but they are subject to additional environmental impact evaluations. Applications for Natura 2000 permits undergo a screening process that determines whether their potential effects on the site warrant further investigation. Projects whose environmental footprint is deemed negligible are granted permits at this point; the rest go through a secondary evaluation. As such, wind project development has not stopped in or around Natura 2000 sites and important bird areas, although this could change soon (see case study)).

Even in wind-friendly Denmark, the Danish Society for Nature Conservation is advocating a total ban on turbines in Natura 2000 areas. The society has even claimed that a ban is in place. While this is not the case legally, the claim has caused confusion with authorities using information from the society to create barriers against permitting wind turbines on Natura 2000 sites.

Simon Zisman, operational director at environmental consultancy RPS, says developers need to tread carefully when developing a project in a Natura 2000 area. "The Natura 2000 reserves are there to protect the very best of Europe's wildlife sites," he says. "As a starting point, our advice to clients is to steer clear."

Another problem is that avoiding the sites themselves may not always be enough. RPS advises to check any connectivity between potential development sites and nature reserves because, depending on national legislation, protection can extend beyond reserve boundaries. There can be effects from developments that lie on migration pathways of birds and bats, or downstream on aquatic species and habitats.

Conservation goals

However, Ivan Scrase, senior climate change officer at the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds', admits a total ban on development is not tenable and it should be allowed to happen as long as conservation goals are taken into consideration. There is considerable variation in how countries define boundaries to sites and whether they include buffer zones, he says. Bulgaria in particular has designated very large areas, which he suggests may be why development is proving problematic. "Consultation with (conservation charity) Birdlife partners could help developers tweak their projects so that they can demonstrate that the likely impact of their development on the conservation interests of the area will be nil," he advises.

However, this is easier said than done. Scrase points out that most countries have no management plan for the sites, and advises governments to go this extra step: "Without knowing what the official conservation objectives of a site are, it is very difficult for a developer to demonstrate that its project will not impact them."

Burden of proof

Zisman agrees that Natura 2000 legislation was never meant to be an outright ban. However, depending on how countries interpret the directives for their legislation, developers are likely to face a series of stringent tests that could prove prohibitive in terms of cost and delays.

Securing expert ecological advice early in the site assessment process is crucial for developers seeking sites in Natura 2000 areas. Surveys must be completed during the appropriate season, commissioned for the relevant duration, and using recognised survey methods, he says. This ensures results are credible, and can form the foundation for all required assessments.

Having defendable data gives wind developers their best chance of meeting the Habitats Directive's (see box, previous page) demanding requirements. Rigour at this stage is also vital to securing project finance.

RPS was recently called in to review the adequacy of bird assessments ahead of potential acquisition of a wind farm adjacent to the Danube Delta in Romania. The project had local consent, but the surveys failed to focus on the key species, making it impossible to conclude that the development would not affect birds from the adjacent Natura 2000 site. Without this security, the bank's lending criteria could not be met.

Gruet suggests developers put management measures in place to mitigate the impact of wind farms. They can improve or entirely re-create foraging areas nearby so local birds can avoid the direct location of wind farms. "We're trying to make it clear that wind energy is not one of the technologies that is most harming the environment," says Gruet. "Quite the contrary, so it shouldn't be the one that is most burdened."

NATURA 2000 EU BIODIVERSITY PROTECTION

Europe's target to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 is guided by two directives - for birds and habitats - that require the protection of key sites for certain species and habitat types. Natura 2000 is an EU-wide network of nature protection areas. It comprises areas designated by member states for special protection under the 1992 Habitats Directive or the 1979 Birds Directive, totalling more than 750,000 square kiometres of land. Natura 2000 aims to assure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats, but it is not a system of strict nature reserves where all human activities are excluded.

CASE STUDY: WILD GOOSE CHASE OVER PROJECT APPROVALS IN BULGARIA

The Bulgarian environment and water ministry last year revoked a permit for the 95-turbine Smin wind project in the Durankulak Lake and Bilo special protection areas.

Bird protection campaigners claimed the wind farm would create a wall of turbines between the roosting and foraging sites of the red-breasted geese that winter in the area, further endangering an already threatened species.

This decision was overturned by the Bulgarian courts in February, to the anger of conservation charity Birdlife International, which claims the environmental impact assessment was inadequate.

Bulgaria's bird protection society and the environment and water ministry submitted an appeal to the supreme court, but this was rejected in May. There is no further appeal process, so the project can now go ahead.

However, Birdlife International has warned that the European Commission could take the case to the European Court of Justice. Bulgaria is already in hot water with the commission over failure to protect its Natura 2000 sites. Ultimately, the developer - international consortium Wind Energy - could be forced to remove the project.

Bulgaria's economic ministry is now reviewing a recommendation to stop processing requests for project approvals in Natura 2000 sites and other protected areas.

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