Slow approval of renewables projects puts climate goals at risk

Chief Europe Correspondent

In 2012, a Danish renewable energy developer applied for a permit to build an offshore wind farm in the country’s southern waters that could power 350,000 homes.

In 2020, after navigating a complex application process, the company, European Energy A/S, finally won approval from regulatory authorities to move forward—only to find out in the same meeting that another government branch was planning to declare the selected area a nature-protected zone.

“You go into a meeting, and you bring the champagne bottle to celebrate after eight years of developing the project and all of a sudden they pull this white rabbit,” said Mathias Aarup Berg, senior regulatory affairs manager at European Energy. “It came as lightning from a blue sky. We had heard nothing about this.”

This Danish’s company’s experience reflects the challenge of permitting facing clean energy developers all over the world. What were once seen as procedural issues are now inadvertently sabotaging the climate goals of the European Union, the United States and more.

Permitting delays are separate from but related to another hurdle in the race to net zero: growing public opposition to new clean energy projects. Last year, Cipher scrutinized a proposed power line in Maine that failed due to local objections.

In the EU, a mix of lack of staff, red tape, uncoordinated internal decision-making and growing biodiversity concerns are among the main obstacles leading to permitting delays. The urgency to scale up renewables is even more palpable now due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the bloc keen to reduce its dependence on energy imports.

“I don’t want to overdramatize, but permitting is key for securing a stable energy supply,” Morten Petersen, a Danish MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group and vice chair of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee, told Cipher. “It’s becoming a security policy, which is not something any of us thought of.”

A previously revised renewables law tried to tackle the issue of permitting bottlenecks a few years ago, including by streamlining the process and setting up deadlines in some cases. Yet many EU countries missed a June 2021 deadline for bringing these changes into national law.

This shows the wider disconnect between decisions made in Brussels, the EU capital, and action on the ground around the Continent. Recognizing the problem, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is set to release next month guidelines for EU countries to help streamline permitting procedures.

The EU wants to get 40% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 (compared to 22% today). There’s talk of bumping up the target even higher in light of the war.

But the EU is not building enough wind energy to reach its targets largely due to permitting delays, Wind Europe, the European wind lobby group, said in February. (This is a global problem; see our Data Dive below). The EU has four times more wind capacity stalled in the permitting phase than under construction, according to an analysis by Global Data and the Energy Monitor.

“The permitting is so long that you never know when the project will start being built, and you don’t know when turbines will be delivered out of the factories,” said Pauline Fournols, adviser on energy and environment at Wind Europe. “It has an economic impact.”

Permitting procedures for new onshore wind projects can take anywhere between two and seven years, and between less than one year and over four years for solar projects, Commission officials said in a recent webinar.

report last month from energy consulting firm eclareon has found that no EU country has effective policies in place that would ensure the necessary deployment of wind and solar farms. The most serious problems are linked to bureaucracy, the report says, “especially the high complexity, long duration and low transparency of administrative procedures.”

As in the Danish case above, it’s common for one government branch to be unaware of the decisions made by another.

“It’s a real issue, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” Petersen said.

Veerle Dossche, energy policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, a coalition of NGOs, said that while officials need to ease up permitting procedures, a faster deployment of green energy “needs to be managed with respect for biodiversity and ensure citizens and communities are fully involved in decision-making processes and benefit from the energy transition.”

To fully tap into local renewable energy potential, Dossche said officials need to identify sufficient local and regional priority areas for wind and solar farms that are least damaging to the environment. This kind of planning would also create clarity for the larger public, she added.

The German government, which wants to get all of its electricity from renewable power by 2035, presented earlier this month a set of significant energy policy reforms, which are also meant to overhaul permitting processes. The reforms include designating renewables as projects of “overriding public interest,” meaning they’ll be given priority in the event of legal conflicts with other regulations.

Berg’s company in Denmark is aiming for a similar approach for its offshore wind project. The company is seeking potential wiggle room to build the project in the protected area based on public interest while also protecting wildlife. The government signaled support to providing an exception to see the wind farm through.