Clean power groups are calling for a smoother UK planning and permitting process

Boris Johnson must “radically” cut planning approval and grid connection times for renewable projects like wind and solar or risk missing out on promises to improve Britain’s energy independence, developers have warned.

Britain’s Prime Minister is expected to unveil his energy security strategy on Thursday, aimed at reducing Britain’s exposure to international commodity markets in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Already high gas and oil prices became even more volatile after the invasion, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters.

Although the UK is not as dependent as many of its allies on Russian oil and gas – which supply about 8% and 4% of Britain’s needs respectively – the conflict has sparked a race across Europe to find alternative supplies.

The strategy, which has been repeatedly delayed, is expected to contain big new goals for low-carbon technologies such as solar, offshore wind and nuclear. Johnson initially signaled his support for more onshore wind farms, but this is expected to wane resistance by his own backbenchers.

But renewable project developers have warned that the new targets would be meaningless if the strategy did not come with a commitment to address the “inflexible” regimes of the planning process and grid connection.

Due to bureaucracy, offshore wind projects can take more than a decade to obtain the necessary permits before construction can begin, while solar projects suffer similar delays.

“There is a real danger that in 12 months we’ll all be sitting here and not much has changed,” Keith Anderson, chief executive of Spanish-owned energy group ScottishPower, told the Financial Times.

“In the interest of national security, we need to move our planning system to where the standard is [a presumption in favour of] Projects that are being built,” Anderson said. He added that he would like the government to either create a new commission or working group or appoint a tsar to radically reform the planning process and “the way we do it.” [electricity] Mains Connections”.

He said two ScottishPower wind farms off the Suffolk coast which Obtained building permit last week, were originally conceived more than 12 years ago.

“The stuff that we are building and going to build today is from the Gordon Brown era,” Anderson said, referring to the Labor Prime Minister’s defeat in the 2010 general election.

Alistair Phillips-Davies, Managing Director of SSE
Alistair Phillips-Davies, Managing Director of SSE © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of SSE, the FTSE 100 utility and wind developer, said companies need “streamlined planning to get turbines on the water faster and easier” and “accelerated investment in grid infrastructure for connection [them] high.”

He added: “The government has an opportunity to unlock itself [these] in its energy strategy this week and we stand ready to invest billions to make it happen.”

Government officials said they are looking at a “number of options” to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon electricity technologies and ensure local communities could benefit from projects like new solar or wind farms close to their homes, including potentially cheaper prices.

But companies fear Johnson’s energy strategy will prove to be a “high-level” document, setting out ambitious goals with no details on how to achieve them.

Scheduling delays and the time it can take to get energy projects on-grid have long been a bugbear of the energy sector, but companies and scientists warn the problem is getting more acute.

Solar Energy UK said some of its members were experiencing lengthy delays in confirming when their projects would be connected to the grid.

Companies that had anticipated a connection date last year were warned by grid operators that they would have to wait at least five years to bring their solar farms online. The trade association said the backlog was partly due to multiple inquiries from new renewable projects and the bureaucracy involved.

An offshore bank of wind turbines.
Clean energy developers complain that some of the agencies involved in approving technologies like offshore wind power are ill-resourced and underutilized. © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“Many of these projects will end up being abandoned if we don’t find a way to connect them sooner,” said Cameron Witten, head of policy at Solar Energy UK, adding that the total capacity of these projects was 4.7 gigawatts – the equivalent of one and a half new nuclear power plants.

Clean energy developers also complain that some of the government agencies involved in the planning and permitting processes for technologies like offshore wind power are ill-resourced and thinly staffed. The design of the consultation process, which requires developers to repeatedly write reports, send letters and hold public consultations, is inflexible and could easily be done more effectively without recklessly driving through democratic processes, they said.

“Nobody is proposing to abolish all planning laws. . . but it’s about making things happen faster,” said Barnaby Wharton, director of future electricity systems at industry group RenewableUK.

Developers also blamed the rigid regulatory system for power grids, which forces grid companies to anticipate demand five years in advance. Although regulator Ofgem has tried to make the system a bit more flexible, it remains “time-consuming” and “bureaucratic,” Anderson said.

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Rob Gross, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, which brings together academics from universities such as Imperial College and Warwick, said “the real problem” is that the power grid has been designed around coal-fired power stations, which are closer to the communities they serve. Offshore wind farms, on the other hand, are far out at sea and power lines often end up where there is no established infrastructure.

“This needs to be addressed if we are to access our abundant wind resources in particular,” Gross said.

The UK Government said: “We will shortly present our Energy Security Strategy to improve our renewable and nuclear capacity. We cannot speculate on the content of the strategy before it is announced.” Clean power groups are calling for a smoother UK planning and permitting process

Adam Bradshaw

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