Fine tuning the planning balance

Local councils in the Netherlands have been too easily swayed by unsubstantiated protests and not enough by common sense. A recent survey shows that the vast majority of Dutch citizens feel that their local councils should be more actively involved in promoting wind energy. Revised rules are on the way. Veterans of the wind scene are not convinced that the future is quite so rosy.

With a recent survey showing that the vast majority of Dutch citizens feel that their local councils should be more actively involved in promoting wind energy, coupled with government promises to simplify planning procedures for new wind farms, the Dutch wind community would seem to have at least two good reasons to be cheerful. Veterans of the wind scene, however, are not convinced that the future is quite so rosy.

The problems facing Dutch wind development were thrown into sharp relief at a recent seminar on wind energy and planning held in Amsterdam. While a survey commissioned by government agency Novem shows that 94% of respondents felt that their local councils should be more actively involved in finding sites for new wind farms, it was also revealed that at present three out of four wind projects fail to make it beyond the initial planning application, while more than 100 MW worth of prospective projects are currently in search of a location. It is widely recognised that progress on the wind front is slow in the Netherlands due largely to a planning bottleneck.

Under existing legislation, developers have to secure both a planning and an environmental permit for new projects. This is a lengthy procedure, complicated by the extra weighting Dutch planning law gives to the interests of local residents and the law's stipulation that environmental permits are conditional on the completion of an environmental impact statement. Councils are typically with limited resources and expertise and so far they have shown themselves reluctant to undertake such reports.

Showing leadership

Acknowledging the problems facing the sector, Bert Keijts, acting Director General of Planning with the Ministry of Housing, Physical Planning and the Environment (VROM), informed delegates that his ministry was taking a number of steps to improve the situation. These, he said, included a new General Order of Council (AMvB) due to be published next year which will exempt new wind farms from the obligation to complete an environmental impact statement on condition that they fulfil a number of yet to be specified, requirements. "This will significantly reduce the bureaucratic burden for local councils," Keijts predicted.

Further, under the guidance of new minister Jan Pronk, VROM proposes strengthening the weak link in the current wind energy development program by making local government party to the agreements on national wind targets. Under the existing covenant, concluded between central government and the regional administration of the seven windiest provinces in 1991, the Dutch wind program aims to secure 1000 MW installed capacity by the year 2000. That this target will not be met is largely due to the fact that regional councils are powerless to enforce wind development at the local level. In the new covenant for 2020, currently pegged at 2750 MW and due to be finalised next year, local councils will be made party to the agreement, as will water, nature and environmental organisations. In this way, responsibility for the national wind program is extended to the grass roots.

In defence of existing planning procedures, Keijts explained that current planning legislation was intentionally decentralised in the belief that local government was best placed to evaluate the merits of a particular project and that it was not the place of central government to intervene. But he was also critical of many local councils' willingness to refuse wind farm permit applications in the face of local opposition no matter how minimal or ill-informed: "Councils shouldn't refuse a planning application simply because a number of local residents are opposed to a wind farm," he told the delegates. "If the council thinks the application is responsible, it should decide to grant it. Then it will force the opponents to substantiate their objections, and that won't happen very often."

The hand of local government in this respect has been further strengthened by the Novem survey carried out by the University of Amsterdam's IVAM institute. Apart from demonstrating the enormous public support for wind, it also undermines many of the most common arguments of the anti-wind lobby: more than half of the respondents say they are not concerned by any of the "classic" objections to wind farms -- noise pollution, bird mortality or horizon pollution. The survey also found little evidence of NIMBYism, showing public support for wind energy to be greatest in areas where plants already exist.

Seeking exemption

Despite this promise of a brave new world for Dutch wind, many in the sector remain unconvinced that a solution to its local difficulties lies at hand. Aad Brogtnop of the Project Bureau Duurzame Energie, while welcoming the proposal to exempt some new projects from the obligatory environmental impact statement, is concerned by the lack of detail on the attached "conditions." He also points out that an additional VROM proposal to reduce the upper limit for requiring environment impact assessment from 20 MW to 10 MW, if enacted, would more than offset any gain from the new general order. Keijts was vague about this proposed limit on size, indicating only that while a reduction did form part of the ministry's current policy paper, it might be revised at a later date. The disadvantages of the proposed lowering of the limit would, he promised "be thoroughly enumerated before the definitive draft decision was sent for parliament's approval." Details on the conditions for an environmental impact statement exemption are, as yet, also in short supply. According to a VROM source these will be hammered out when the general order is published as a discussion document next year.

With new ministers in place at both VROM and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the commitment of government to wind energy is still unproved. The Dutch wind community will be watching the progress of this legislation with sharp eyes. In the words of one long time industry observer, "It's too early to judge, and there are a lot of questions which still remain unanswered."