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Planning for renewable energy

March 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Paul Burall in Challenge

Paul Burall on overcoming the planning barriers holding back renewables

The UK is failing to meet even its current modest targets for renewable energy. The government's own environmental audit committee has pointed out that renewable energy currently accounts for just 3 per cent of UK energy production, 'a tiny proportion which compares very unfavourably with almost all other European countries'. The committee forecasts that the UK will fail to meet its interim target of 5 percent of renewable production by 2003 and is unlikely to achieve more than 50 per cent of the full target for 2010.

This is especially gloomy news for Liberal Democrats, whose ambitious target of halving climate change emissions by 2040 depends on a huge expansion of renewables.

The planning system bears significant responsibility for this failure. Wind energy is key to meeting the short-term target, not least because - apart from hydro-electric generation - it is currently the only renewable technology mature enough to deliver energy at a price competitive with fossil and nuclear sources. But, in the last four years, three-quarters of the applied-for wind-driven capacity in England has been refused planning permission.

The nascent energy-from-biomass industry is facing similar difficulties. Biomass power stations rely on bulky fuel grown locally (long-distance transport both damages viability and reduces the environmental benefits). Yet some local authorities are refusing permission on the basis that this is an industrial process that should be sited on industrial estates within towns, a view supported by at least one planning Inspector who ruled that a plant was industrial in character and did not need to be in a rural location.

Many structure and local plans are, at best, equivocal about renewable energy. Norfolk is a prime target for the wind energy industry, for the obvious reason that the County has plenty of the kinds of exposed sites needed for viable projects. It already has three operating sites (one given permission on the back of a tourist-attraction environmental education centre) and has four large windfarms at the planning application stage.

So what does the Norfolk Structure Plan have to say on the subject? It begins positively enough: 'Renewable energy developments will be encouraged'. But then come the qualifications: developments should be located 'where their scale, siting or cumulative effect would not have a significant adverse environmental impact. Where there is harm, the need to protect the County's environmental assets will be weighed against the advantages judged to accrue from the proposed level of renewable energy generation'. And applications in or adjacent to any of nine types of specially-protected area (ranging from the Broads to Local Nature Reserves) will be 'carefully scrutinised' for their 'scale, type and impact'.

So what is the potential for that 'harm'?. Wind turbines have no effect on biodiversity (worries about birds are rarely supported in practice): and the average biomass plant usually generate no more than about 12 lorry movements a day.

But, of course, both attract criticism on visual grounds.

That this is the key to the planning problems for renewables is emphasised by the reaction of two Norfolk district councils - Breckland and West Norfolk - to current windfarm applications: they have commissioned consultants to evaluate the different kinds of landscape character within their AONBs and Areas of Important Landscape Quality in order to develop supplementary planning guidance for dealing with applications for wind turbines.

This initiative simply fills out the approach taken in their respective Local Plans. The Breckland plan says 'Proposals for renewable energy projects will be permitted subject to their impact on the landscape, and their effect on nature conservation considerations and local amenity'.

The equivalent West Norfolk policy states 'Applications for energy development including renewable energy should be capable of demonstrating how the advantage to the public interest outweighs any potential pollution, environmental damage or loss of amenity... Permission will be granted for unobtrusive small-scale wind turbines where any adverse effects do not outweigh the benefits of using a renewable energy supply'.

In practice, these policies make it very difficult for renewable energy applicants facing the inevitable opposition of residents.

First, no wind turbine is ever going to be 'unobtrusive': they simply don't work in the shelter of a valley. For the same reason, the most viable sites where the wind is at its most reliable are also those open landscapes that tend to attract the special protection designations.

More seriously, how can a planning authority possibly weigh the harm caused by a windfarm to an area's environmental assets against the advantages of a 'certain level' of renewable energy generation? Or decide whether the advantage to the public interest outweighs the adverse effects of a particular application?

There is, of course, an irony in the fact that such decisions are based on the landscape as it is now. For there is growing evidence to suggest that climate change - especially if it is unabated by substantial switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources - will dramatically alter the biodiversity and landscapes that are supposedly being protected.

Landscape is both obvious and local. Minimising climate change is invisible and global. This makes renewable energy the perfect target for the Nimbies: they can produce computer-generated images of wind turbines towering over familiar fields while pointing out that the amount of energy produced from the machines will make only a microcosmic difference to global emissions.

But - assuming that we accept that climate change is probably the most significant environmental threat facing the world - we cannot allow the Nimbies to win. So what needs to be done to ease the way for renewable energy projects?

First, planners must be confronted with the need to provide appropriate sites for renewable energy infrastructure. National targets must be cascaded down through Regional Planning Guidance into Structure and Local Plans with a clear presumption that authorities that do not provide the necessary sites will find their local decision-making over-turned on appeal.

In view of the urgency, such targets probably need to be introduced and implemented through supplementary planning guidance rather than waiting for the full review of statutory plans.

The form of the targets is worth considering. The easiest - and therefore probably the one to start with - is simply a target for the total renewable capacity to be provided in an area.

However, this would miss an opportunity to use the planning system as a principal driver in achieving sustainability, for the objective should not really be measured in terms of renewable generating capacity but rather in terms of net carbon and other climate change emissions. Planners can influence these outcomes in many ways other than simply providing sites for renewable energy generation. For example, if new housing and commercial developments are built with higher-than-standard levels of insulation, designed to optimise passive heating and ventilation, incorporate combined heat and power plants, and perhaps utilise some on-site renewable sources such as solar roofs, then their carbon emissions will be vastly lower than standard new developments. Again, substantial switching of transport modes from private cars to walking, cycling or public transport or, better still, planning new developments to minimise the need for travel at all, will have the same effect.

So a targeting system based on the climate change emissions of an area would enable the planners to trade-off , say, providing sites for windfarms with traffic reduction measures or the imposition of low carbon emission standards for new development.

The Liberal Democrats new policy paper Planning for the 21st Century - to be debated at the Party's Torquay conference in March - goes a little way towards this approach. It suggests national and regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions but appears to be relaxed about forcing targets down to the crucial local, implementation, level, requiring these only to 'address the policies ... and demonstrate how (they) will help achieve environmental targets'.

The paper also calls for the encouragement of indicative planning zones for renewable energy developments where there would be a presumption in favour of applications. But, without clear and timetabled local targets for renewables and carbon reduction, such zoning is likely to depend more on avoiding the kind of Nimby objections that currently bedevil renewables than on meeting the national need for clean energy.

Fortunately, the Liberal Democrats are currently reviewing their energy policies as well and the planning paper accepts that more work needs to be done on this by the energy working group.

Of course, the Nimbies cannot just be ignored. More must be done to try to win them over. There is a strong feeling among many of the windfarm objectors that they are being asked to sacrifice their unspoiled outlook so that one local landowner and a national or international power company can make pots of money while the local community gains nothing. This need not be the case. Many windfarms elsewhere in Europe offer the local community cut-price electricity. And a village of 3000 people in the Rhondda Valley has been won over to supporting an adjacent 10-turbine windfarm by being offered a 50 per cent stake in the project and its profits through a community trust.

There are many other planning issues likely to arise from the need for a huge increase in renewable energy resources, ranging from the visual effects of retrofitting photovoltaic panels to existing buildings through to the requirement for a substantial increase in the National Grid links between the major centres of population in England and North-West Scotland, which has around 40 per cent of Europe's potential renewable energy resources. Policies to encourage renewable energy will also impact on other Nimby issues, especially energy-from-waste plants.

No-one is arguing that applications for renewable energy schemes should be given an automatic green light. Some sites are better than others; there can be transport issues; and some potential projects raise genuine contradictions (any application for a Severn Barrage would, for example, irreversibly affect a major wildlife site); and there are choices to be made based on the impact on the landscape.

Setting targets within the planning system - be they for renewable energy capacity or based on net climate change emissions - would provide the basis for planning authorities to balance the global need for action to minimise climate change with the usual local issues with which they are already familiar.

Paul Burall was a member of the planning policy working group who hopes that the current energy policy working group (of which he is also a member) will go much further to ensure that the planning system does not continue to frustrate the necessary expansion of renewable energy.