Developers call on EU states to speed up permitting regimes

Complex permitting procedures can hold up wind farms for years and restrict technology choices. How can the process be improved?

EU directive calls for new project permit applications to be decided within two years (pic: Joakim Lagercrantz/OX2)
EU directive calls for new project permit applications to be decided within two years (pic: Joakim Lagercrantz/OX2)

Governments face a huge challenge in simplifying permitting for wind farms despite progress at EU level, according to panellists at the recent WindEnergy Hamburg digital event.

The wind power industry itself will also need to play its part in easing the process by submitting strong project applications and engaging with local communities at an early stage, members of the “simplifying permitting” panel suggested.

Permitting procedures across Europe are currently too complicated, time-consuming and often differ between different regions — even within the same country, complained Luca Bragoli, head of public affairs at Italian renewable energy developer ERG.

“The process is extremely complex in many countries. This creates huge delays, which translate into the inability to use the best technology available,” he added.

Mirela Grigore, country portfolio manager at Germany-based developer VSB, suggested that permits allowing developers to apply for a project without being tied to a specific turbine, would enable them to make use of technological advances made during the permitting process.

Adding to the complexity is that permitting being carried out at different administrative levels across Europe, with national, regional and municipal governments all involved in the process. Good coordination between different levels of administration is crucial, Bragoli pointed out.

Reduced waiting times

Some help may be on the way for reducing waits for permitting approvals, however, with an EU directive due to be translated into national legislation by mid-2021.

The directive, issued in October 2020, called for member states to approve or deny permits within two years for new projects, or within one year for repowering projects.

However, to date, most member states have not addressed permitting in their national energy and climate plans (NECPs) — blueprints setting out their climate and energy objectives, targets and policies.

Delivering the EU’s climate targets — including the commission’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 — will not be possible without simplifying permitting rules, warned VSB’s Grigore.

“Governments should focus on translating permitting rules in the renewable energy directive into law in a uniform manner,” she added.

“They could make better use of human and administrative resources to fulfill targets and commitments in country’s national plans, have clear guidelines in place for civil servants and involve local stakeholders.”

Panellists also called for more consistent permitting procedures across Europe and especially within countries.

“Whether you are in the north or south of France, you should have the same rules and requirements for permitting — but we see big differences for wind energy projects, especially for biodiversity requirements,” said Matthieu Monnier, deputy CEO of French wind energy association FEE.

“Some require additional information, and that can prolong the permitting process.”

Victor Marcos Morell, director of renewable energies and electricity markets for the Spanish Energy Agency, agreed that there was plenty regulators could do to ease permitting, such as allocating more staff and resources and improving the coordination between administrations.

However, the wind industry also needs to do more, he added. Developers need to make sure they submit good projects with a comprehensive environmental impact assessment to make it easy for the authorities to grant approval. “The time we spend on the permitting process depends on the projects you send to the administration,” Marcos Morell said.

“If we have maybe not a very strong project and not a very experienced unit in charge of the assessment, we may need to ask them to redo some parts of the project and increase the length of the permitting. I think both parties have to work together to deliver these ambitious goals.”

Community engagement

Strong local opposition to a planned wind farm is one of the biggest delays in permitting, according to VSB’s Grigore, meaning that community engagement can ease the process.

Vestas’ head of global public affairs, Kresten Ørnbjerg suggested lessons could be learned from the manufacturer’s native Denmark, where it is common practice for citizens living near a wind farm to be able to buy a stake in the project, or have their pensions invested in clean energy. This makes communities more open to wind power.

He added that the sector should also address local residents’ concerns about wind farms and explain the benefits of wind power to people — whether it is decarbonisation or job creation.

The FEE’s Monnier agreed: “We have to make sure that people are aware of the purpose of energy and climate goals.

“We have to show the added value of job creation and the benefits for the national economy.

“We have to invite people to have more interest and financial participation in the projects that are near to their habitation.”

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