Opinion: Solving planning and permitting bottlenecks requires a tripartite solution

The road to net zero will rely on a massive scale-up of clean electrification – with rapid deployment of wind capacity as a centrepiece – but despite increasing momentum, there are barriers that risk slamming the brakes on the transition.

Governments, developers, and civil society must work in tandem to solve bottlenecks argues Elena Pravettoni

Slow planning, permitting and land acquisition is one of the most pressing execution challenges for the wind industry.

Across key markets – including Europe and the United States – slow and cumbersome permit-granting processes are leading to project delays, cancellations and undersubscribed auctions. 

A challenging environment

This particularly affects wind projects, which are larger in scale. Today, it can often take longer to permit a wind farm than to build it. For the wind industry, challenges around planning and permitting have been compounded by supply chain volatility and auction design, creating a challenging environment for the industry. 

All this risks making the transition a lot more fraught. It is estimated that the world could miss out on up to 3,500TWh of electricity generation from wind and solar in 2030 – a shortfall of more than 20% against a net zero compatible trajectory – leading to an additional 2Gt of excess annual carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

Timely action to address deployment barriers is critical. In Europe, the European Commission has recently put forward a number of policy proposals to galvanise domestic manufacturing; via the Net Zero Industry Act and Critical Raw Materials Act and reform of power market design. However, ensuring that installations can proceed at the pace required will also necessitate taking strong action on the fundamentals: to reduce planning and permitting bottlenecks. 

The good news

There is good news on this front. Analysis shows that putting into place simple measures to streamline planning and permitting has the potential to reduce project times for wind by more than half. 

These potential time savings assume that processes can be accelerated while maintaining strong environmental and social safeguards, and that actions can tackle three major areas of planning and permitting barriers: regulatory blockages, such as complex regulation and inflexible permits; administrative issues, such as overlap across different permitting authorities; and ensuring societal support, including addressing concerns around biodiversity and local economic development. 

A tripartite solution

To deliver this vision, action will be needed from several stakeholders, which must work in tandem. Governments, developers and civil society all hold an important role.

The most critical action is required from national and regional governments, who have the purview to unblock regulatory and administrative pinch points. 

To address regulatory barriers, governments should not delay action to prioritise wind projects and dedicate sufficient land, including via renewable energy zones with streamlined permitting regimes, as well as setting and enforcing clear targets for permits, and ensuring that permit structures are dynamic, for example that a single permit can accommodate limited specification changes from developers. 

EU policymakers

The EU has taken some important steps in this space. In December 2022, it passed emergency legislation that set more stringent deadlines for permit approval times, as well as guidelines and timelines for member states to create streamlined ‘renewable go-to zones’. 

On the administrative front, governments should focus on ensuring there is a clear, unified structure for permit granting across government bodies and national or regional authorities, as well as sufficiently staffing relevant departments and digitising processes.

Developers must engage

Developers also have a key role to play. To enable a sustainable energy transition, renewables deployment must go hand in hand with biodiversity conservation and socioeconomic development. 

Wind developers must adopt strategies to effectively engage with local communities and other stakeholders during project planning and construction, as well as devote resources to understanding and engaging with key counterparts. Many developers are already taking steps in the right direction. 

On the biodiversity front, Ørsted and Iberdrola’s introduction of targets to become net-positive on biodiversity are a welcome step.

Honest brokers

Local authorities and civil society represent a third critical pillar of action. Local authorities must ensure that their own administrative barriers are minimised – issues around appropriate staffing levels have led to delays. They should ensure that local planning regulations do not set additional red tape for renewable energy deployment, and that these are aligned to national-level mandates – a mismatch that has halted onshore wind in the UK, for example. 

Together with civil society, local authorities must work to promote a fair and honest dialogue between communities and developers, and support and enable multi-stakeholder engagement processes at various steps of project development.

Action from multiple stakeholders is critical to addressing the planning and permitting barrier. 

Eyes on the prize

The size of the prize is significant – removing these delays would quickly accelerate the injection of clean gigawatts into the grid. It is also a competitive edge that countries must seize. 

As the renewables industry gears up for a new wave of investments, certainty that projects can move down the pipeline more quickly will have large appeal.

Elena Pravettoni is clean power lead at the Energy Transitions Commission