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Renewable Energy Review: role for changes to the planning system?

In July last year, David Forsdick asked in this blog: where does the revocation of the Regional Strategies leave Renewable Energy? Since then the status of Regional Strategies has been and remains up in the air. This week, the Government’s climate change advisor has identified the planning system as a key constraint on the delivery of renewable energy in the UK.

The Committee on Climate Change’s Renewable Energy Review, spawned from the Coalition Agreement, hit the headlines this week because it concluded that nuclear energy remains the cheapest low-carbon energy option for the UK. Doubtless this will be viewed as another small step towards the next generation of nuclear power stations – a project which is already well-advanced.

The RER also identified and analysed “key deployment barriers” for a step change in renewable energy delivery. Those barriers are firstly the availability of finance and secondly planning constraints. The RER notes that although onshore wind is at the “deployment” stage, the investment in it has been limited by the planning framework. The report suggests that “a planning approach which facilitates significant onshore wind investment would reduce the costs of meeting the 2020 renewable energy target, and of achieving power sector decarbonisation through the 2020s”.

The report also notes planning constraints on improvements in transmission, which form an important aspect of reconfiguring the national grid to take advantage of renewable energy opportunities. The RER therefore concludes: “Achieving higher rates of approval for onshore wind projects and for required investments in the transmission network is therefore likely to require central government decisions in line with national priorities as defined by carbon budgets, possibly under new planning legislation that explicitly sets this out.”

Exactly what legislative reform is needed is not so clear. But one difficulty for the Government is the fact that the reforms to the planning system which are currently in the pipeline – the Localism Bill and the requirement for a political decision on nationally significant infrastructure projects  - according to the CCC “introduce new risks of delays and low approval rates”. How can a planning system focused on “localism” achieve a better success rate in obtaining consents for onshore wind power? If it cannot, how can the planning system be reconfigured to ensure that renewable energy schemes do come forward in a timely manner? And how should the planning system mediate between genuine concerns about local environmental impacts, and the need to ensure that the barriers to renewable energy schemes are overcome?

It should be remembered that on the CCC’s analysis, meeting the Climate Change Act 2008’s 2050 carbon reduction target is highly dependent on power sector decarbonisation between now and 2030. On the RER’s illustrative scenario, that objective is met through 40% of power generation being provided  by renewables and 40% by nuclear. The timetable is tight. Working backwards, and given the lead-time on many projects, it is obvious that if a further change in the planning system is required, it will be required sooner rather than later.

Finally – it might be noted that we are not alone in grappling with these issues. The initial report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change observes that  “favourable, or enabling, environment for RE can be created by addressing the possible interactions of a given policy with other RE policies as well as with energy and non-energy policies (e.g. those targeting... urban planning)... In turn, the existence of an ‘enabling’ environment can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of policies to promote RE.”