Turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs” to solve the energy crisis: Chris Bryant
While wind turbine manufacturers have recently been faced with competitive bidding and cost inflation that upset their customers’ financial calculations, delays in permits and a shortage of available land are long-standing issues: it sometimes takes nearly a decade for various impact assessments to be completed, the legal arguments to end and the turbines to spin.
European turbine orders from Vestas Wind Systems A/S plunged three-quarters year-on-year in the April-June quarter, which it attributed in part to a “lack of progress in authorizations”.
Around 7% fewer German wind permits have been issued so far this year compared to the first eight months of 2021, according to preliminary data from onshore wind energy agency FA Wind. Capacity additions are also far behind their 2017 peak. German turbine maker Nordex SE’s decision to shut down a blade factory in Rostock in June speaks volumes.
These are amazing failures, given the urgency of the energy and climate crises. Do we really want to restart even more coal plants? Fortunately, European governments seem to have realized that they can no longer afford to drag their feet with bureaucracy.
Overhauling permitting is at the center of the bloc’s RePowerEU plan to accelerate renewables, which it said was a matter of “overriding public interest”. There are many promising ideas on the horizon to shorten the approval process and help European Union member states more than double their wind capacity by 2030.
However, replicating this sense of urgency at the local level, where authorities are often understaffed or lack expertise, is not easy. Changing the minds of NIMBYist locals and environmental lobby groups who too often obstruct projects due to concerns about noise, shadows, degraded views and species protection is also a big challenge.
Although modern wind turbines are over 150 meters high, transportation and installation are the easiest parts, requiring only a few months: on the other hand, planning and authorization often take donkey years.
First, the developer needs to find a place to build. That’s a problem in places like Bavaria or Poland, which enacted so-called “10H” rules several years ago that have all but halted wind development in both. (The turbines must be placed at a minimum distance of 10 times their height from built-up areas). In Hungary, wind farms cannot be built within 12 kilometers (7 1/2 miles) of a populated area, which pretty much rules out the whole country. Although a leader in offshore wind, England has de facto banned onshore development since 2015 due to restrictive planning rules.
Then the paperwork piles up: Bloomberg’s Will Mathis vividly described the 36,000 printed pages that EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG had to submit earlier this year to erect just three wind turbines in its home country.
Reaching the finish line can be a Sisyphean undertaking: satisfying the various state and local agencies takes so long that the application has to be resubmitted because the turbines are obsolete. A federal system like Germany’s adds additional complexity because each state has different procedures.
Even after receiving the necessary approvals, the wind farm operator has to rely on legal challenges: the more complicated the approval process, the more likely opponents will find grounds to appeal. And woe to the developer if a rare bat or a red kite is sighted in the vicinity.
The EU’s recent insistence that countries designate less ecologically sensitive ‘must-have’ areas with shortened planning processes is a sensible first step to reducing the backlog.
Kudos to Germany – Europe’s largest wind market by installed capacity – for promising to dedicate 2% of its territory to wind power, up from 0.8% currently, although the commissioning phase work of a decade is too long, in my opinion.
So-called repowering projects – re-equipping old wind farms with more powerful modern turbines – should be accelerated because the ecological risks are already known and there is a connection to the grid.
When it comes to cutting red tape, Denmark offers a good model: the Danish Energy Agency acts as a one-stop-shop for offshore wind permitting, coordinating with all relevant authorities on behalf from the developer.
Project managers should be allowed to apply for multiple permits in parallel (rather than waiting for one agency’s response before submitting the next) and to specify a range of technology parameters to avoid obsolescence.
I also like Spain’s exercise of “positive administrative silence”: if an authority does not respond within a specified time, that part of the request is automatically considered approved. And apps must of course be fully digitized: it’s the 21st century, for God’s sake!
Wind energy already enjoys strong public support, but the energy crisis offers the opportunity to convince the remaining skeptics. Sharing part of the financial proceeds of a wind farm project with the local community can help gain their consent, either through a tax that pays for better public services or by reducing their electricity bills. In return, the minimum distance to dwellings could be reduced or eliminated. (Fortunately, Poland’s and Bavaria’s 10H rules are already watered down.)
And rather than focusing solely on climate benefits, wind power should be presented as a guarantor of energy sovereignty and a bulwark against electricity rationing.
This could temper resistance from conservation groups who must recognize that blocking wind farms is potentially counterproductive. If left unchecked, the climate crisis will endanger far more species than turbine blades. If that doesn’t work, governments might consider a more blunt approach: limiting the number of possible legal appeals.
Of course, it is unfair for a city dweller like me to plead for the countryside to be covered with turbines; they will not be built in my garden. But you know what else is unfair? Opposing clean energy generation, then asking taxpayers for help when flood waters arrive or electric bills soar.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Europe. Previously, he was a reporter for the Financial Times.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion