Europe jockeys for space in renewables race

Chief Europe Correspondent

Time to take out a map and get organized. It sounds basic, yet it’s an important—and potentially contentious—exercise the European Union is embarking on to figure out the best spots to fit more wind and solar farms.

Mapping out how to use space more efficiently to quickly scale up renewable energy will be key in helping the 27-member bloc meet its climate goals and shed dependence on Russian natural gas.

The Continent is marred by slow permitting and growing local opposition to big infrastructure projects, challenges the United States and other Western nations also face. Europe is more densely populated than most other parts of the world, making the problems here especially acute.

In the last two editions of Cipher, we looked at the problems and solutions for scaling up clean energy technologies to fight climate change. This week we’re zooming in on how the EU wants to speed up renewables deployment on the ground.

The bloc has seen renewable energy installations flourish over the last decade, driven by emissions-reduction laws and lower clean power generation costs. There has been less of a focus on understanding the impact this growth has had on use of space, however.

As more massive wind turbines started popping up on fields and near people’s homes, concerns about biodiversity have grown and so has the not-in-my-backyard sentiment, or NIMBYism, despite overall public support for green energy.

“Renewable energies have so far not been part of the DNA of spatial planning, but it’s clear they have to be included going forward,” said Matthias Buck, director for Europe at the Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende.

A May proposal from the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, would oblige all countries to identify “go-to areas” suitable for the installation of renewable energy plants.

The Commission would require that projects in these locations—if deemed to have an insignificant environmental impact—receive permits within a year. Examples include degraded areas like old quarries, closed mines, landfills, urban wastewater treatment sites and brownfields.

The proposal is expected to aid mostly with on-land renewable projects. The EU already has a separate law that requires countries to map how best to use their seas, including for offshore wind projects.

The go-to areas proposal, which would fall under the EU’s renewable energy law currently under revision, is part of a bigger plan to stop Russian fossil fuel imports, known as REPowerEU.

The plan seeks to boost the bloc’s installed wind power capacity to 510 gigawatts by 2030 from the current 236 GW and its installed solar photovoltaic capacity to 600 GW by 2030 from about 166 GW currently.

Buck called those goals “highly ambitious” and said: “The EU now must ensure that all conditions for faster deployment on the ground are in place.”

The go-to areas proposal is creating mixed feelings.

Markus Pieper, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator for the EU renewables law, told Cipher that go-to areas can be a good solution for several member countries since it gives them more discretion over certain areas.

“It is clear that Europe has some densely populated regions and therefore often little potential for the expansion of renewable energies in natural space,” said Pieper, a German MEP from the center-right European People’s Party.

However, countries shouldn’t be forced to pursue such areas no matter what, “especially if they can prove that their planning is serious and that they will be able to achieve the expansion targets in compliance with the Paris climate criteria,” he said.

He says a bigger problem to solve is redesigning the EU’s animal conservation law, “which has considerably impaired the construction of wind turbines to date.” The law calls for both the protection of an entire species and of individual animals; the MEP said the focus should be on the former.

Germany, Pieper’s home country, has the highest installed wind power capacity in Europe, weighing in at 59.3 GW. The German government wants to require federal states to scout 2% of land suitable for onshore wind farms, and strike deals with other less populated states to make up for any shortfall. Currently, 0.8% of German land is designated for onshore wind power, and only about 0.5% of land is being used.

Veerle Dossche, EU energy policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, a coalition of NGOs, supports the Commission’s idea of better mapping and planning at the EU level—if citizens remain involved.

“Although in low-impact zones faster permitting procedures should be considered, they still need to be transparent and inclusive in order to achieve public acceptance,” Dossche said.

Other factors beyond community acceptance are also likely to influence the process, said Christoph Zipf, communications manager at the lobby group WindEurope, which supports the go-to areas proposal. These include varied wind conditions across Europe, types of turbine technology and the rate of repowering (replacing old turbines with more powerful and efficient ones).

The European Parliament and national governments have yet to take a formal position on the Commission’s go-to areas proposal, with more clarity expected in the fall.

Outside the EU institutions, however, some worry the “go-to” phrase itself could cause trouble.

Jochen Hauff, director of corporate strategy, energy policy and sustainability at BayWa r.e., a global company that develops and maintains wind and solar projects, says the EU’s lengthy process for negotiating and putting laws into action (which can take two to three years) could lead to a slowdown in renewable energy installations while countries wait for legal clarity.

It’s important to make clear that these are additional steps, not a replacement to how things are currently done, he said.

“’Go-to’ is dangerous as phrasing,” he said. “It bears the risk that everything else is no-go.”