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Fairer decisions

Gaining planning permission can be the biggest obstacle that a renewable energy project needs to overcome so that it can be built and start generating green electricity. This is especially true for technologies that are often ‘unfavourable’ among the general public, such as wind farms and waste-fuelled projects. It is no wonder that some developers consider the planning process to be an inconsistent minefield. But is it possible for renewable energy projects to smoothly overcome the perceived planning barriers?

It is certainly important. The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Without the growth of the renewable energy sector, this is an impossible target. The country has legally binding targets in place to produce 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable energy by 2020, and for 21% of overall reductions to come from this source by 2050.

In 2009, the Labour Government published the Renewable Energy Strategy and Low Carbon Transition Plan, both heralded as showing clear intention for the UK to meet the European-led renewable energy obligations. This commitment has been reaffirmed by the coalition Government, which went one step further in its Coalition Agreement which included the intention to “seek to increase the target for energy from renewable sources”.

To meet these ambitious targets and avoid hefty fines, the planning process needs to be as smooth as possible. A consistent and fair renewable energy planning system that is responsive to enable suitable projects of varying scales and technologies, in appropriate locations, to be developed quickly and efficiently is key to providing confidence for investment in the UK’s renewable energy sector.

To demonstrate the bottleneck that the planning process represents, wind and marine renewables body RenewableUK is reporting 261 wind farm developments within the UK as currently ‘in-planning’, some dating as far back as August 2000. These wind farm developments have a combined capacity of more than 9,600MW, equivalent to the electricity supply to 5.3 million homes a year.

Renewable energy projects that have successfully achieved planning permission have cited a number of reasons for delays in moving their projects through the planning process. Although these reasons are specific to each project, a number of common themes are emerging.

Key sticking points include local opposition, unsubstantiated stakeholder concerns and a lack of planning officer knowledge. Planning officers often lack experience of dealing with what are sometimes considered to be ‘new’ technologies without operational examples in the local area to act as reference points.

Conflicts between local and national priorities and political agendas can also be a problem. Uncertainties around knowing what is an appropriate level of environmental impact data to accompany an application, which can add significant costs, has been cited regularly by renewable energy developers as a frustration. If implemented quickly and effectively, mechanisms to overcoming these hurdles would result in a significant increase in investment in the UK’s renewable energy sector.

So it is reassuring that the Government appears to be taking steps to streamline the planning process. The Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) was launched in 2008 to achieve this. It was created to prevent nationally important development needs being slowed by the localised planning system. The IPC’s aim is to make the planning application process for nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as large-scale renewable energy developments, faster, fairer and easier for people to get involved in.

“Key sticking points include local opposition, unsubstantiated stakeholder concerns and a lack of planning officer knowledge”

The IPC is currently considering 49 developments, 23 of which are for renewable energy (18 on- and off-shore wind, four biomass power plants and one tidal power project). These projects have a combined capacity of circa 30GW. But in June it was announced that the IPC would be abolished and replaced with a Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, a fast-track system for decision-making on major infrastructure projects. Energy minister Charles Hendry has stated that “a fast and efficient planning system is critical for facilitating investment in much-needed new energy infrastructure. By abolishing the IPC, we will ensure that vital energy planning decisions are democratically accountable”.

Another mechanism introduced alongside the IPC in 2008 was the Planning Performance Agreement (PPA), designed to improve the quality of planning applications and the decision-making process through collaboration. PPAs aim to bring the local planning authority, project developer and key stakeholders together at an early stage of a project’s development so they can work collaboratively through all stages of the planning process to achieve a robust and transparent planning application. This process should enable a quick and favourable planning decision to be reached.

The renewable and low-carbon sector is considered a key area where PPAs can add real benefits in achieving planning permission efficiently. The first six projects participating in the renewable energy and low-carbon planning performance agreement pilot programme were confirmed in December 2009.

One of these pilot projects is a 5MW community wind farm project, funded by regional business organisation CO2Sense Yorkshire (see box). It is intended to return £300,000 in annual profit to the community for investment in other energy projects. The management board of the project feel that the PPA has already provided key stakeholders with a forum to hold regular discussions to identify, assess and, where necessary, mitigate concerns that may not otherwise be raised before the planning application is submitted, currently expected for early 2011. It is hoped that the collaborative approach enabled through the PPA will result in an efficient permitting process.

It is to be hoped that the IPC and PPA initiatives that have been rolled out in recent years will see improvements to the planning process, enabling an efficient transition for renewable energy projects.
Vickie Maynard is a project manager at CO2Sense Yorkshire

THROUGH THE PLANNING MAZE

Tips on how to experience the smoothest possible ride through planning

  • Choose your technology provider and consultants carefully and at an early stage.
  • Get to know your local authority and planning departments, and make sure that you meet their information needs at every stage of the project development.
  • Effectively engage with your neighbours and other key stakeholders at an early stage so they feel they have a say in how the project is developed.
  • Be prepared. The better prepared you are before you submit an application, the less time you will spend further down the line making adjustment, and submitting additional information.

PPA: ORIGIN ENERGY PROJECT

Origin Energy is a community interest company developing community-owned wind developments in the Yorkshire region. Its first project is a 5MW, two-turbine scheme outside Doncaster. Residents of the local parish will automatically become shareholders of the project and receive benefits from the scheme.

The project has received funding support from CO2Sense Yorkshire to develop the project to submission of a planning application. On receipt of planning permission, the project would launch a share issue to raise funds to construct the project, enabling the CO2Sense support to be repaid.

By being part of the PPA, the project is already seeing real benefits, from ensuring that appropriate ecological studies are undertaken through to early engagement with key stakeholders and interest groups.

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