Building Back Greener - Can we be Cleaner?
There have been numerous changes to the planning system in reaction to the current pandemic. Fortunately, the environmental agenda has not been ignored. We have had the Planning White Paper, George Eustice’s announcements on the Environment Bill and now the PM Boris Johnson focused on the green recovery (or what he referred to as the Green Industrial Revolution) in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference – all of this ahead of COP26. The Prime Minister has proclaimed the UK can be the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind power’ with a pledge of £160 million to support offshore wind generation and the infrastructure which will be needed to bring forward an increase in generation capacity by 2030.
All this is evidence of the Government’s position on ‘building back greener’. The UK targets to be both net zero and to have half of our energy production from renewable energy sources by 2050. Given over 70% of the emissions are from energy production and consumption, we need ‘project speed’ to include a bit of green! The government must therefore tackle energy production if it is to meet its overarching targets.
Common perceptions of renewable energy usually conjure up images of large wind turbines turning slowly either out at sea or closer to home, or solar panels in fields and on buildings. In reality, it includes many different types of energy generation.
The EU Directive 2009/28/EC defines renewable energy as energy from renewable non-fossil sources, namely wind, solar, aerothermal, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogases, each of which is then defined separately within the Directive.
Daily check-ins to the National Grid’s ESO app include these different types of energy production, together with nuclear and carbon forms of energy generation and provides data on what percentage of energy produced that day has zero carbon emissions. At the time of writing this was 39%.
The data can be broken down by region and provides data on the maximum values – for example the maximum total recorded for wind was on 2 January 2020 with 17,129 MW of energy produced that day by wind turbines. More importantly however it records the maximum number of hours without coal production- currently recorded at 1630 hours which ended on 16 June 2020. This time period was significant since it was the longest time as a country, we went without using coal since the Industrial Revolution! Even more encouraging is the fact that coal produced energy is declining with the alternatives being on the increase.
Energy companies do seem to be racing to meet the rising demand for cleaner energy. A report by energy consultancy PX Group stated there were 269 planning applications for new wind, solar and bioenergy schemes in 2019 - a 75% increase from the amount 3 years ago - a four-year high.
Planning and Renewable Energy
Accepting we have the will for change, can this be delivered? A key driver and obstacle to energy generation schemes is obtaining planning for the different schemes. Planning is devolved to each nation and in each there are different planning policies to deal with development at a local level.
The recent announcements focus on offshore wind energy generation which has one of the most complex planning regimes to navigate and overcome.
The position is further complicated by the two-tier system for energy generation governed by the Electricity Act 1989 and the Planning Act 2008 and those to be determined at a local level with the local plan and Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (or equivalent) regime.
For scheme below 50MW, the local planning authority across all nations deals with applications which would usually be determined in accordance with local planning policy.
For larger projects, those over 50MW, the position becomes complex.
In Scotland, these are governed by Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 and are dealt with by the Consents Team of the Scottish Government.
In England and Wales, these are governed by the Planning Act 2008 and the Electricity Act 1989 and are dealt by the National Infrastructure Planning division of the Planning Inspectorate which makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State who makes the final decision. Discretion therefore lies with the minister if he wishes to approve or refuse permission, but some schemes can be decided under the local plan regime where appropriate.
In Northern Ireland, schemes are decided with by the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Offshore projects are dealt with slightly differently with the threshold for energy generation usually being higher. In Scotland, offshore schemes greater than 1MW are handled by the Section 36 Electricity Act 1989 Consents Team by the Scottish Government.
In England and Wales, schemes greater than 1MW but less than or equal to 100MW are decided by the Marine Management Organisation under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. Those greater than 100 MW are handled by National Infrastructure Planning as set out above.
Further complications arise in that permission from the Crown Estate must be obtained for all offshore schemes out to the 12 nautical mile limit, before planning can be approved.
And all offshore schemes will also need to be granted licenses by the Marine Management Organisation who will declare safety zones around these installations. This consults with the National Infrastructure Planning team.
We therefore have different organisations dealing with different applications and schemes. The type of scheme is irrelevant- if they are producing energy it will depend on the energy generation capacity for the scheme.
We also have overarching and differing policies dependant on location. The UK Government sets national policy statements which have an overarching effect on policy set by the developed governments.
In this instance, there are two national policy statements - EN1 and EN3.
“This NPS, together with EN-1, is the primary decision-making policy document for the IPC on nationally significant onshore renewable energy infrastructure projects in England and Wales and nationally significant offshore renewable energy projects in waters in or adjacent to England or Wales up to the seaward limits of the territorial sea or in the UK Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) (defined in Section 84 (4) of the Energy Act 2004), except any part of a REZ in relation to which Scottish Ministers have functions.
1.5.2 It will remain possible for Welsh Ministers to consent offshore wind farms in territorial waters adjacent to Wales under the Transport and Works Act 1992 if applicants apply to them rather than to the IPC.
1.5.3 In Scotland the IPC will not examine applications for nationally significant generating stations or electricity network infrastructure. However, energy policy is generally a matter reserved to UK Ministers and this NPS may therefore be a relevant consideration in planning decisions in Scotland.
1.5.4 In Northern Ireland, planning consents for all energy infrastructure projects are devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, so the IPC will not examine applications for energy infrastructure in Northern Ireland.”
That clarifies the matter in respect of those overarching policies, but at a national devolved level the following policies are also to be taken into consideration:
- In Scotland further policy considerations as set out in the ‘The Future of Energy in Scotland’ policy.
- In Wales there is adherence to the Technical Advice Note 8 and its Energy Statement.
- In England the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Reading the NPPF it appears there is support for renewable energy schemes - but looking a little closer at footnote 49
“Except for applications for the repowering of existing wind turbines, a proposed wind energy development involving one or more turbines should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing.”
For the UK to be “the Saudi Arabia for wind power” will therefore mean a strategically different approach to planning policy and the removal of this highly detrimental footnote.
Such policies, especially EN1 and the NPPF need to be updated for there to be real progression in renewable energy generation.
Brexit and the Future State
Given that energy generation and the subsidies which have been in place are set by national governments, the effect of Brexit on this sector is expected to be minimal.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum
shows the growing dominance of China’s solar energy production together with Denmark’s achievement of 69% of renewable energy generation.
The UK has some way to go to be on par with the leading European countries of Denmark, Ireland, Spain and Germany - but progress is being made. The “Energy Trends” report published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) show renewables provided 45% of Great Britain’s electricity between April and June up from 36% in Q2 2019.
Putting this into context, the amount generated by all sources has been reported to be circa 75GW therefore offshore capacity needs to increase to meet this new demand of the government to power all homes by this source by 2030.
Onshore wind is a vital part of the energy mix, but this was not mentioned by the PM in his speech this week. This produces 13.4GW from over 700 hundred sites across the UK. Growth in this sector has stalled due to the considerable planning hurdles put in place by the government which is detailed above.
It is an encouraging picture however and his stimulated much needed debate regarding energy generation. The Energy White Paper is due out in the Autumn which will hopefully provide clarity on this issue and promote further discussion.
It is also encouraging that investors and pension schemes are increasingly looking at green investments as a credible alternative to standard bricks and mortar investment. Also, large corporate organisations are looking at ways in which they can accelerate their own net zero plans. These will no doubt include more renewable energy schemes to power offices and manufacturing plants.
As governments, businesses, financiers and investors embrace a greener agenda, the demand for renewable energy continues to grow. The government needs to create the right framework to encourage this trend, so we can all reap the benefits of a cleaner, safer world.
This article first appeared in EG Magazine on 11 October 2020