Planning Approval Crisis Threat to UK Onshore Wind Farms

Only 25% of wind farm planning proposals are being approved by local councils in the UK, according to latest figures released at the British Wind Energy Association’s annual conference, BWEA31.

According to the State of the Industry Report, which was released at the event, this figure represents a significant drop in the number of new applications being approved locally, particularly affecting smaller projects of 50 MW or less. In 2007, 63% of new wind farm applications were approved.

John Prescott, rapporteur on climate change for the Council of Europe, said at the conference: “Our planning system discourages planning applications by industry. Three quarters of applications are refused and this is the highest it has ever been and it is getting worse. This is threatening our renewable energy targets. The challenge is to unlock the local decision making process, as there is a mismatch between local and national objectives.”

On average it currently takes 17 months to gain planning permission for a <50 MW onshore wind farm in the UK, though for other types of development the average amount of time is just 16 weeks.

Prescott set out a number of possible solutions to the planning issue, arguing that local authorities should possibly be required to set aside land for renewables development or that local renewable energy targets should be imposed. He also made the point that lengthy planning application costs are picked up by the industry, suggesting that local authorities which reject wind farm applications should pick up some of the costs if such developments are granted on appeal. Currently, 70% of planning applications are granted on appeal. A spokesperson for the BWEA said the association fully supported the suggestions, providing sufficient wind resources was available at any such ‘set aside’ sites.

Maria McCaffery, BWEA chief executive, said: “The planning system is broken when it comes to wind energy. Winning approvals at appeal is second best for everyone, it is expensive, slow and cumbersome for developers and frustrating and confusing for local people.” McCaffery added: “We need wind to be delivered quickly because over the next decade fully one third of our existing power stations will be decommissioned. Although there is enough wind in the system to meet the 2020 renewable energy targets, half the pipeline of these projects still need to win approval – a local council approval rate of 25% threatens the delivery of that target in time.”

Industry also raised concerns over the difficulties regarding obtaining planning permission in the UK. Willie Heller, CEO of Falck Renewables and chair of BWEA economics and markets strategy group said: “I am not worried at policy level. I am worried at an implementation level; there is a lot of uncertainty there. That’s what scares off developers and banks from investing in this area.”

Problems associated with planning permission in the UK could also affect the development of the grid, according to Alison Kay, commercial director of transmission at the National Grid. “If we ever get a period of certainty then these targets are achievable, but planning permission is essential for the implementation of renewable energies”, she said.

Outlining central government support for planning reform, Ed Miliband, secretary of state for energy and climate change echoed Prescott’s sentiments, calling for a review of the planning process and saying in the keynote political address: “I know we need to make institutional changes to planning.”

Nonetheless, despite a fall in the approval rate of wind farm applications, McCaffery pointed out that this week the capacity of operational wind farms in the UK will reach some 4 GW, with a further 1-2 GW of new capacity anticipated over the coming 12 months. According to the BWEA, the total installed capacity of wind is set to rise to 12 GW by 2012.

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