EU struggles to remove renewables bottlenecks, even temporarily

The Commission’s draft proposal might ‘halt’ German deployment for a year, in sign of unintended consequences to come.

Last Monday, the European Commission proposed a framework to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy. The point of the proposal is to accelerate the granting of permits and to do so by allowing the suggested emergency regulations to override national procedures and legal systems for 12 months.

In a sign that it might not have an easy ride, the proposal has caused some concern in Germany, where the worry is that rather than fast-tracking permits, this emergency measure could lead to confusion and even stall developments if adopted by the EU Council in its current form.

The proposal builds upon the May 2022 REPowerEU plan that imposed a binding target of 45 percent renewables in the EU’s power mix by 2030. And it is a response to the European Council’s call in October for a fast-tracking of the simplification of permitting procedures by means of emergency measures.

Impact on nature

The stumbling block is located within article 2 of the proposal, and the “overriding public interest” of renewable energy plants when weighed against objections based on environmental concerns.

The issue is with the use of vague phrases such as “appropriate mitigation measures”, “proper monitoring” and “further measures” when describing the circumstances where any killing or disturbance of protected species “shall not be considered deliberate”.

The protection of nature has been at the heart of much of the historic German opposition to onshore wind turbines, and finding solutions that satisfy all parties is not easy because the impact of turbines on nature is notoriously difficult to quantify.

“What we are fighting for with regards to nature protection is a scientific approach and an overall coherent concept for species protection that doesn’t exist yet. This work has been ongoing in Germany, but with the proposed measures, we are taking a huge step back,” says Marie-Luise Pörtner, managing director of BayWa r.e.’s German Wind Unit.

BayWa r.e. is jointly owned by German BayWa AG and Swiss fund manager Energy Infrastructure Partners AG.

“The draft regulation says, for instance, that for nature protection it is possible to do immediate measures to protect birds. But this would allow all authorities in Germany to generally ask for these measures, even if there is no cause. It also implies that the collision risk must be brought to zero, which is stricter than the current law in Germany and will mean a lot of curtailments,” says Pörtner.

BayWa r.e.’s assessment has been confirmed off the record by a source with deep knowledge of German renewable regulations.

“The general suspicion is still there – and that’s what we are fighting against in Germany – that by erecting a wind turbine, you are significantly increasing the risk for birds to be killed, and there is simply no scientific evidence for this,” says Pörtner.

One rule does not fit all

Furthermore, the suggested regulation would add to the bureaucratic confusion for the duration of the year when it is planned to be in effect, predicts Pörtner:

“This directive would mean that for one year nobody is doing anything because the authorities would be completely lost and won’t know which law is valid. It will halt the whole process in my eyes for another year, which we can definitely not afford.”

There is no denying the need for speed with regard to permits. According to data from Ember, an energy think tank, the average time for moving from idea to construction, also known as the permitting phase, is typically well above the EU’s target of 24 months. In Germany, 40 months are needed for onshore wind developments. In Sweden, it is 108 months, and 83 months in Spain.

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The question is whether this newly proposed emergency regulation could end up doing more harm than good.

“The problem with all the EU issues is that you are looking at a very heterogeneous set of countries and some are way more advanced in terms of renewables than others. For some, this directive might be a huge progress, but for Germany it would be a clear step back in terms of nature protection,” says Pörtner.

Uncertain EU-wide impact 

Overall, the effect of the suggested measures on the EU’s renewables roll-out is difficult to predict.

“The impact of presuming that renewables are of overriding public interest is a very positive development, but will only be known once it has been tested in the courts of each member state, which will take time to work its way through,” says Rosheen McGuckian, CEO of renewables manager NTR.

“Also, the success of achieving a faster turnaround on planning decisions is hugely impacted by the extent to which there are adequate experienced resources in the various planning authorities, both at municipal and national levels. In our experience, the lack of sufficient resources is one of the defining limiting factors across the various countries in which we operate,” adds McGuckian.

She also draws attention to the impact of a measure to repower renewable power plants. Here, the procedure for agreeing on grid connections will be simplified if no more than 15 percent of capacity is added to the original project.

“In reality, most developers or investors are unlikely to swap old out for new to just create the same level of power. Developers and investors are more likely to focus their energies on where they are not constrained by grid capacity and can enhance the output,” says McGuckian.

Official responses from interested parties will be supplied  ahead of the next EU Energy Council on 24 November, when the proposal can be adopted, at the earliest.