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11 October 2019

842: Drax decision highlights energy NPS age

Today’s entry reports on the decision to grant consent for the ‘Drax Re-Power’ project. It was recommended for refusal by the inspectors but approved by the Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom MP. Why? Read on.​

Here are the facts and figures:​

  • project: a 3600MW gas-fired power station at Drax near Selby, North Yorkshire;​
  • promoter: Drax Power;​
  • application made: 29 May 2018;​
  • two inspectors, Richard Allen (then his third) and Menaka Sahai (her first);​
  • 320 relevant representations, fairly high;​
  • five written representations, very low;​
  • 212 questions in the first round, average;​
  • two compulsory acquisition hearings, three issue specific hearings and three open floor hearings – above average;​
  • one Local Impact Report, jointly from Selby and North Yorkshire;​
  • examination exactly six months, recommendation exactly three months, decision exactly three months;​
  • 471 days from application to decision, just over 16 months, below average; and​
  • 474 documents on the Planning Inspectorate web page on the date of the decision (not including the relevant representations), average.​

The main reason that the inspectors recommended refusal is the amount of carbon dioxide that the project would produce and its effect on the government’s then target to cut emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050. At 380 grammes per kilowatt hour, this 3600MW gas-fired power station’s maximum emissions would be about 12 million tonnes of CO2 per year. The then 2050 target for the whole country was about 120 million tonnes of CO2 per year, so this project could use up 10% of it, and now of course the target is zero. For context, I calculate that to offset that amount of carbon by tree planting would require covering an area greater than Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire combined.​

The inspectors considered whether the need for the project was a proper issue for the examination and whether the project met that need assessed against security of supply, affordability and decarbonisation, concluding ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively. On the three assessment areas, the conclusions were that the project would be neutral, neutral and negative respectively.​

The first question hinged on the following sentence in paragraph 3.2.3 of National Policy Statement (NPS) EN-1 for overarching energy:

‘The weight which is attributed to considerations of need in any given case should be proportionate to the anticipated extent of a project’s actual contribution to satisfying the need for a particular type of infrastructure.’​

This would appear to open up consideration of the need different types of infrastructure rather than being neutral about that, hence the examination of the project’s effect on security of supply, affordability and decarbonisation. The decision letter also referred to paragraph 3.3.16 of EN-1, which says: ​

‘Energy NSIPs take a long time to move from design conception to operation and they are generally designed to operate for 30 to 60 years. The Government has therefore considered a planning horizon of 2025 for the energy NPSs in general and for EN-6 in particular, as an interim milestone to secure our longer term objectives. A failure to decarbonise and diversify our energy sources now could result in the UK becoming locked into a system of high carbon generation, which would make it very difficult and expensive to meet our 2050 carbon reduction target. We cannot afford for this to happen.’​

The government disagreed with the inspectors’ conclusions in a long (31 page) decision letter. At paragraph 4.13, the letter says that the presumption that all forms of electricity generation are needed has already taken security of supply, affordability and decarbonisation into account.​

On the change to net zero (which occurred at the end of the inspectors’ reporting period and was not taken into account by them), the letter says at paragraph 5.9:​

‘the Secretary of State does not consider that Net Zero currently justifies … attributing the Development’s negative GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions impacts any greater weight [than before] in the planning balance.’​

On other issues, there was a further disagreement between the government and the inspectors on whether the associated battery storage project was itself a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) or associated development, and if the former, whether it should be decided under section 104 of the Planning Act 2008 (where an NPS is in place) or section 105 (where one isn’t). The inspectors said it wasn’t its own NSIP but if it had been it should be decided under section 105; the government said it was an NSIP and should be decided under section 104 because EN-1 applied to it and you can’t decide different parts of an application under different sections.​

Whatever one’s views on this project it is pretty clear that the energy NPSs, now eight years old, are well out of date and have the potential to cause decisions to be made that are at odds with current policy. If an application for a coal-fired power station came along would the government feel obliged to grant it because of the declared need in EN-1, even though its policy is to phase out all coal-fired generation by 2025?​

The next decision is for the Northampton Gateway rail freight project, which was granted on 9 October and will be reported in due course.

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