Paper weighing down Europe’s renewables push

Chief Europe Correspondent

COPENHAGEN — Dozens of thick, paper-filled binders stand carefully lined up next to each other across an office hallway. The thousands of printed pages are the documents one developer needs to physically hand in to apply for a permit to build a small wind farm in Germany.

The above describes a photo shared by a prominent renewable energy group in Brussels, which has become emblematic of what many experts say is an absurd hiccup slowing down renewables’ deployment in the European Union: too much paper.

“We are seeing 70 folders for three to four wind turbines in Germany, and this is representative for all countries,” Katja Wünschel, a top executive at the Germany-based energy company RWE, said to a packed auditorium in Copenhagen in late April during an annual event organized by Europe’s wind industry group, WindEurope. “This is for sure not good for the environment, but for sure not for the people who have to read it all.”

Permitting delays for renewable energy projects have recently become a big concern both in the EU and the United States. The delays slow the buildout of the wind and solar farms needed to move away from fossil fuels and tackle climate change.

There are many reasons for the delays, often more complex than the paper application itself. Hurdles include the involvement of too many authorities that don’t coordinate sufficiently with one another or have enough knowledgeable staff, as well as complex spatial planning rules, growing public opposition and more.

Europe’s reliance on an archaic paper-based permitting process exacerbates the above challenges, resulting in a cumbersome application process at odds with the bloc’s ambitious climate agenda.

Not only that but—as often is the case in the EU—the 27 member countries have a kaleidoscope of different permitting rules and procedures spanning different levels of governments. All this complexity makes swiftly digitalizing the process even more important.

It can take up to 10 years to receive all the permits for a wind farm, depending on the country, industry groups say. The EU currently has 80 gigawatts of wind energy stuck in the pipeline. (For reference, 1 gigawatt represents about 333 wind turbines.) Permitting time lags for photovoltaic installations are shorter, around one and a half years.

A second photo example from Germany has been making the rounds on social media: The permitting process for three wind turbines resulted in 36,000 sheets of paper, 100 hours of work and total costs of €22,000.

In Italy, developers can spend up to €40,000 (about $43,000 USD) just in printing and photocopying costs to create copies for all the authorities involved in the permitting procedure, according to WindEurope.

In Poland, Michał Kaczerowski, the CEO of consulting firm Ambiens, said it takes him two weeks to gather all the documents he needs to aid developers with their permitting applications. Authorities need official signatures on paper, usually on several copies, and often the signatories are spread across the country.

“And then we need to put it together and send it to two or three different regional and local authorities,” he said at the WindEurope event in Copenhagen. “Then they will print their answers and share them with us, and then we will have to blah blah blah…,” Kaczerowski said, gesticulating to express his frustration.

In Romania, the permitting procedure is coherent overall, and some digitalization exists, but it still largely relies on a paper application, said Andrei Manea, executive director of the Romanian Photovoltaic Industry Association.

“Digitalization in Romania means scanning paper documents, uploading them and sending them online,” he said. “For some parts you can do that, for the rest you have to go with the hard copy.”

Paper-based permitting creates inefficiency, said Christoph Zipf, communications manager at WindEurope. All the pages companies must print have to be transported, often in vehicles running on fossil fuels.

“While the emissions of these operations might not be extremely high, it is all counterintuitive when keeping the goal of climate neutrality in mind,” he said.

Contrast that with the U.S., where the permitting procedure has been digital for years. Developers send all documents electronically (albeit several times to the various agencies involved). The exceptions are engineering designs best viewed on large-format paper.

To be sure, the U.S. also struggles with permitting delays for similar reasons as the EU, including lengthy environmental assessments.

Europe is now expected to get a game-changing digital makeover, if things go as planned. The EU agreed on an updated renewable energy law earlier this year that calls on national governments to digitalize their permitting processes within two years of the new law going into effect, expected to happen this fall.

Some EU countries are already taking the digital plunge. Spain launched a fully digitalized permitting process about three years ago, which is simplifying applications. Portugal launched a digital platform in March this year, which functions as a one-stop shop for renewable project applications.

Initiatives are also emerging at the industry level. Amazon Web Services, consulting firm Accenture and WindEurope launched a digital permitting prototype at the event in Copenhagen that streamlines the project approval process and provides more transparency to all parties involved.

Even with these advancements, implementation could present additional hurdles.

“In countries that already do many things digitally, it will be easier to implement an online platform; in those that don’t, it will be a bigger challenge,” Zipf said. “Digital literacy and abundant training for permitting agents will also be crucial here.”

Manea, in Romania, echoed this thought. Many local authorities in the Eastern European country are only beginning to learn the permitting process as renewable projects become more mainstream.

That’s why the best permitting solution is a mix of digitalization and human interaction, he said.

“Even when we digitalize, behind the screen will be the same people—that’s a fact,” Manea said. “Making a call is not so bad in the end: you can speak to someone, have a common understanding. Because, if not, you have what? ChatGPT?”