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How to get renewables right

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Urging for “immediate action” to hit the EU’s newly-adopted target of at least 42.5% renewable energy by 2030, European Commission Vice President for the Green Deal Maroš Šefčovič presented a “European Wind Power Action Plan” as one path to get there.

With an eye to the upcoming COP28 UN climate talks in Dubai which he will be attending, Šefčovič noted that the wind sector faces a unique set of challenges globally including insufficient and uncertain demand, slow and complex permitting, and a lack of access to raw materials.

“This package will help the European wind sector to grow at home and compete globally, thus reducing dependencies on external suppliers and creating green jobs for workers,” he said.

But this is easier said than done. One of the most important aspects of the action plan is that the Commission has committed to publishing guidance for EU member states to follow in designating their “Renewables Acceleration Areas” where permitting will be clearer and easier.

This has been one of the key asks of NGOs and renewable industry associations, who have been pushing for more predictable and credible planning on where renewables installations can and can’t go.

Giles Dickson, CEO of the association Wind Europe, said the guidelines will be a “game-changer”, noting that persistent permitting bottlenecks have been holding the sector back. Environmental NGO The Nature Conservancy has also been pushing for clearer permitting procedures, which they say can be done without jeopardising biodiversity and nature.

“Member states now have 27 months to designate these areas so we’ve got a crucial window of opportunity to ensure that they’re using clear, consistent and credible criteriathat builds confidence across stakeholder groups, and in doing this delivers win-wins forclimate and biodiversity,” said Rebecca Humphries, TNC’s head of climate policy for Europe.

Permitting decisions

Concerns about the environmental and aesthetic damage that can be caused by wind and solar farms have been one of the biggest impediments to renewables deployment around the world.

Because they can be unpopular to local residents, permitting decisions can often be passed around like a hot potato between local and national politicians, with nobody wanting to take a decision.

One example is in the UK, where the Conservative government has had a moratorium against building onshore wind turbines in place for ten years, deeming them unsightly andintrusive on nature.

Under pressure from both environmentalists on one side and rural voters on the other, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak decided at the end of last year to absolve the national government of responsibility and pass planning permissions to local authorities.

But critics say these municipal politicians will be even less likely to withstand local political pressures from the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) phenomenon. “This has tremendous challenges,” Alan Whitehead, an MP from the opposition Labour Party, told a TNC event in London earlier this year.

Pippa Heylings, a local councillor for the English district of South Cambridgeshire, said at the event: “We need to get a much more national picture of where the best places for developing wind are and not leave it to the whims of some local actors in deciding that’s not for us here, it should be somewhere else. There needs to be a national land use plan.”

She said the new law amounts to the same situation as the moratorium because of its confusing wording.

While the UK won’t benefit from the new EU renewable acceleration area guidelines, campaigners are hoping that the guidelines can have an influence globally.

Task of implementation

They will be pushing at COP28 for best practice cases and methods to be understood and learned from globally. One of those tools is a platform called “Site Renewables Right” developed by TNC.

“This is a scientific approach that uses advanced spatial mapping and the latest scientifictechniques to map out areas of low biodiversity conflict,” said Noor Yafai, TNC EuropeDirector for Global Policy.

This can not only allay public concerns but also reduce costs and accelerate permitting procedures. The targets being set at COP28 will be meaningless if countries don’t develop clear policies and guidance on how to implement them, Yafai said.

“The credibility with which they’re implemented, the consistency of approach, that’s allgoing to be absolutely instrumental.”

This platform is already being used in the Balkans and has identified one country in Croatia where solar and wind can be deployed without serious impacts on wildlife with thepotential to meet more than half of the country’s renewable energy targets.

“We started with a pilot project to ask: can we develop renewable energy and also preserve nature?’ and we used one county in Croatia as an example,” said Dragana Mileusnic, TNC’s Director for Southeast Europe.

“They are spatial plans—essentially maps identifying areas where solar and wind can happen without causing conflict, or with minimal conflict with other industries and wildlife. We worked with local experts who do energy planning for the Croatian government, coupling them with global scientific experts in the US. We also involved local stakeholders.”

The mapping has since extended to Serbia and Montenegro.

“When the war in Ukraine started in 2022, our work accelerated at a pace we couldn’t have foreseen,” she said.

“In Serbia we were able to do local stakeholder engagement in the field, organizing roundtables in economic centres and getting feedback from municipal authorities and local NGOs, as well as experts in nature conservation, agriculture, tourism and so on.”

TNC’s preliminary scientific findings have concluded that there is more than enough suitable land to meet the EU’s new renewable energy goal , but they caution that this can only be done if all stakeholders work together from the start – to avoid any nasty surprises down the line.

In that process, environmental and socio-cultural sensitivities need to be taken into account at the outset, as do grid conditions. That’s why TNC has partnered with Eurelectric, the European association of power generators, to collaborate on planning.

The United Arab Emirates COP28 presidency is asking countries to commit to a global target of 11,000 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity by 2030, which translates to a tripling of the 3,629 GW installed globally by the end of 2022.

That target matches the pathways called for by the International Energy Agency. Campaigners have welcomed the intention, but are stressing that without a clear plan to address the permitting, resources, labour and public opposition bottlenecks this target cannot be met.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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