945: BESS and infrastructure planning
Today’s entry reports on what the British Energy Security Strategy means for infrastructure planning.
We have already analysed the British Energy Security Strategy (BESS) in general in our Net Zero Blog but what does it mean for the Planning Act 2008 regime?
The strategy ups or introduces targets for various types of low carbon energy generation:
- offshore wind increases from 40GW by 2030 to 50GW;
- hydrogen production increases from 5GW by 2030 (only announced in August 2021) to 10GW;
- solar, which didn’t have a target, gets one of 70GW by 2035; and
- nuclear, which also didn’t have a target, gets one of 24GW by 2050 (that is about 15 standard-size reactors or 80 Small Modular Reactors).
The losers are onshore wind, which remains discouraged in legal and guidance terms, albeit there are some lukewarm words about ‘developing partnerships’ and tidal, which gets a throwaway comment about aggressively exploring opportunities including it.
In the normal course of events, the five revised National Policy Statements would be reissued for final approval but these changes may set them back a bit.
The most interesting reference for Planning Act 2008 nerds, however, are the bullets on page 17, which read:
We will cut the process time [for offshore wind approvals] by over half by:
- reducing consent time from up to four years down to one year;
- strengthening the Renewable National Policy Statements to reflect the importance of energy security and net zero;
- making environmental considerations at a more strategic level, allowing us to speed up the process while improving the marine environment;
- introducing strategic compensation environmental measures, including for projects already in the system, to offset environmental effects and reduce delays to projects;
- reviewing the way in which the Habitats Regulations Assessments are carried out for all projects making applications from late 2023 to maintain valued protection for wildlife, whilst reducing reams of paperwork;
- implementing a new Offshore Wind Environmental Improvement Package including an industry-funded Marine Recovery Fund and nature-based design standards to accelerate deployment whilst enhancing the marine environment;
- working with the Offshore Wind Acceleration Task Force; a group of industry experts brought together to work with Government, Ofgem and National Grid on further cutting the timeline; and
- establishing a fast-track consenting route for priority cases where quality standards are met, by amending Planning Act 2008 so that the relevant Secretary of State can set shorter examination timescales.
When the first bullet refers to ‘up to four years’ it is referring to the Norfolk Vanguard offshore wind farm, which was applied for in June 2018, granted in July 2020, quashed in February 2021 and re-granted in February 2022, and was therefore an outlier as the only one to be quashed. In fact looking at offshore wind consents alone, the track record up to recommendation is pretty good – only three took more than 500 days from application to recommendation – Norfolk Boreas, East Anglia One North and East Anglia Two. For the final stage, no decision was delayed beyond its three month allowance until the end of 2015 and every decision thereafter was delayed, by between 60 and 800 days.
Whatever the statistics, getting the application to decision period down from an average of 17 months to 12 months is a challenge, but not impossible. It is probably a case of taking Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ approach that worked for UK Cycling, where each element of the process is slightly improved rather than making big improvements in some areas.
We will have to see if the second bullet means a reconsultation on the Renewable National Policy Statements, and which NPSs that actually means – there is only one specifically on renewable energy generation, but others impact upon it.
The next five bullets are all welcome steps to solve offshore wind issues at a strategic level rather than relying on each project to grapple with the same issues over and over again, with it getting slightly harder each time. Those issues have undoubtedly led to the delays in decision-making referred to above. There have been issues other than ecological ones, though, such as navigation and fishing that should be addressed too. The Offshore Transmission Network Review is mentioned in BESS on the section on reducing costs, but it will also shorten and simplify the planning process if long onshore cables are needed less.
The final bullet is of course the most interesting – the proposal for a fast-track consenting route for priority cases where quality standards are met. That has echoes of the original rationale for the Planning Act regime as a whole, and I eagerly await discussion of what are ‘priority cases’ and ‘where quality standards are met’ means in particular.
If there is a new early gateway to vet and approve documents before applications are made, then even if the time from application to consent is shortened, the overall time may not be. That is a general consideration for the review of the Planning Act regime: that shorter times during one period may cause longer ones elsewhere and it is the overall time from an identified early point (probably before the application is made, e.g. when a scoping opinion is sought) to being open for business that matters.