Europe on verge of permitting leap for wind, solar farms

Faster permitting deadlines, public interest labels and digital processes are set to accelerate wind and solar deployment under revisions to EU renewable energy laws.

On March 30, European Union officials provisionally agreed to reform permitting procedures in a suite of revisions to the 2018 EU Renewable Energy Directive that aim to accelerate wind and solar growth and hit a new higher renewable energy target of 42.5% of gross energy consumption by 2030.

The permitting of wind and solar projects currently takes several years due to complex administrative processes and a lack of resources at approval authorities. Around 80 GW of new wind capacity is tied up in permitting procedures, including 59 GW onshore, according to industry group WindEurope. 

The revisions to the Directive strengthen last year's emergency permitting measures, which set a two-year maximum for permitting new projects and one year for repowering projects, require member states to create accelerated deployment areas and define solar and wind as projects of overriding public interest. Under the revisions, the deadlines would apply to all permit applications submitted from January 2023, including grid connection and environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

 Onshore wind capacity under permitting in Europe

                                (Click image to enlarge)

Source: WindEurope, March 2023

The revisions also require national governments to digitalise the permitting process, which should reduce administrative delays.

The revised regulations will reduce developer timelines, spurring deployment and reducing the risks for supply chain investors, Christoph Zipf, WindEurope spokesperson, told Reuters Events.

The faster permitting requirements and classification of renewable energy as projects of overriding public interest will have the greatest impact on deployment, Kresten Ornbjerg, Vice President, Global Public Affairs at turbine supplier Vestas, said.

"Policy makers must address several challenges at once," Ornbjerg said. The revisions to the directive should "deliver the combination of measures to [allow] wind deployment at scale," he said.

The application of permitting deadlines from January 2023 should incentivise member states to act swiftly, Ornbjerg said, but the revisions still require approval by the European Parliament and sign off by the European Council.

WindEurope was hoping the text would enter into force this summer, but the vote by the European Parliament has been delayed until June following opposition from France and other countries against other revisions to the directive.

Faster approvals

By enshrining in law renewable energy as projects of overriding public interest, it is assumed that the carbon reduction and energy security benefits of a specific project will outweigh any negative environmental impact unless it can be clearly proved otherwise.

This should help overcome legal objections from opponents to projects, Zipf noted. The principle is already employed in Germany, where it has helped reject appeals against permitted wind farms, he said.

                                   Forecast new wind installations in Europe 

                                                            (Click image to enlarge)

Note: REPowerEU represents EU renewable energy targets

Source: WindEurope, March 2023

Member states will also be required to create accelerated renewable energy areas where permitting must be completed within the year for new projects and six months for repowering. These measures were proposed in last year's emergency permitting regulation and Germany, Spain and Portugal have already created such areas.

Member states will have 27 months to design the acceleration areas so some countries may not impose similar schemes until 2025, Zipf warned.

National governments must also digitalise permitting processes within two years of the directive coming into force.

WindEurope says this is a potential "game-changer" for permitting timelines as many countries still require developers to send multiple hard copies of their applications to different permitting authorities at national, regional and local levels.

Spain already offers developers a digital portal while Portugal is currently planning a platform that would provide “tacit approval of permits" if authorities do not deliver one by the deadlines set in law, WindEurope noted in a statement.

Permitting applications are set to surge on the back of the new regulations and greater processing capacity at local and national authorities will be required, Ornbjerg said.

Working with wildlife

Under the directive, permitting authorities must apply a ‘population-based approach’ to biodiversity protection, meaning developers can use a wider range of measures to protect endangered species but may be mandated to implement measures beyond the project sites to protect the population as a whole.

Germany moved early and started to fast-track faster permitting rules last year, prompting objections from wildlife groups. Germany must also get buy in from its powerful federal state governments to ensure the reforms are implemented, a spokesperson for German wind energy association BWE said.

The precise nature of the EU's deployment and permitting targets increases transparency but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are likely to challenge the designation of acceleration areas as they must be classified as "low environmental risk," Justus Quecke, Principal Associate at law firm Posser Spieth Wolfers & Partners, told Reuters Events.

The overriding public interest label will support developers in this regard, he noted.

Carla Freund, Policy Officer at the Nature Conservation and Biodiversity Union (NABU), fears the overriding public interest rule will attract irresponsible developers.

Looser requirements on environmental impact assessments and the top-down approach through national regulation could drive local conflict and alienate citizens, she warned.

Sensitivity mapping should be conducted to identify areas where projects could negatively impact sensitive communities of species and habitats, to avoid subsequent legal issues, Freund said.

Reporting by Neil Ford

Editing by Robin Sayles