When planning an onshore wind farm, developers are expected to undertake wide-ranging assessments of the project's effect on the environment.
An EU directive on environmental impact assessments (EIAs) dictates broadly what is required, and each European state has implemented its own legislation accordingly.
Regulations in the UK provide a reasonably clear indication of the potential scope of an assessment that, in the main, will be dependent on the scale and size of the project, and where it is to be located.
Local planning authorities tend to take a safety-first approach and expect a full EIA as part of a planning application. In fact, by undertaking this, developers and regulators will have a powerful tool to help gauge the precise environmental implications of a project and how they should be dealt with.
A robust and defensible assessment such as this is often regarded as the central point around which a planning application is defined.
Planning approval, however, is lengthy, recently noted in a European Wind Energy Association league table as taking, on average, over two years in the UK.
Wind farm development can take years and involve many complex considerations and decisions that need to be made early on.
The planning authorities and local communities will have the greatest influence on the success or otherwise of an application.
Site selection usually centres on physical and environmental constraints such as access, wind speeds and the environmental status of the sites.
Where feasibility assessments are undertaken, potential environmental show-stoppers, such as the landscape and visual impacts of a site as well as ornithology or aviation objections, are factored in as high risks that will need to be costed against possible refusal of consent.
Once the viability of a site is established, then the developers are usually confident enough to start defining an EIA and consenting strategy.
The capacity of the EIA team is critical in order to tackle the myriad of issues that can emerge. The team must draw together the skills of landscape architects with those of ecological, hydrological, acoustic and traffic specialists.
A flexible approach is needed to work within the scope of the assessment and to address any amendments that may be required.
Stakeholder engagement can also mean the difference between success and failure. Different stakeholders often have conflicting agendas and opinions that may not be clear to the developer.
A local authority will have its own concerns and these may not be the same as those raised by environmental specialists or business groups.
Nor should any assumption be made that the views of members of the public are uniform. All these views must be considered.
Nowadays, the completion of an EIA should not be seen as the end of the process. A risk assessment should consider the possibility of an appeal if consent is refused, and the developer should be aware that material prepared early on may be subject to almost forensic scrutiny at inquiry.
There are no short cuts to environmental consent. A strategic approach combining technical diligence, detailed appreciation of risk and a clear programme for delivery of the environmental statement will help the application process run smoothly and improve the chances of a favourable outcome.
- Integrated team: To work closely with the project manager and have access to technical support on construction issues.
- Appraisal of constructability: Consider construction of the wind farm to identify environmental impacts and practical mitigation measures, and allow for subsequent changes without the need to re-apply for consent.
- Stakeholder engagement: Set a communication plan to inform on progress and provide a mechanism for concerns to be raised.
- Public engagement: Work with a public relations firm to establish local opinion early on, keep people informed and listen to their views.
- Timely and adequate surveys: Ensure there is enough time to complete all baseline surveys, including those evaluating ecological effects, noise, aviation and local economy. They must comply with EIA survey guidance.
Andrew Walters is a technical director for SKM Enviros consultancy skmenviros.com