European Union energy ministers have agreed to speed up permitting and deployment of renewable energy projects. A final decision – formal approval – on the new regulation may occur at another emergency meeting on December 13.
The ministers at the EU Energy Council, which is meeting in Brussels, have agreed to designate all renewable energy projects temporarily as in the “over-riding public interest.”
The regulation would be valid for 18 months, and may be extended.
Some members of the 27-member bloc, however, are keen to link the new regulation to the adoption of natural gas price caps. Some members such as Spain, Greece and Poland want a bloc-wide price cap for natural gas purchases, but other members – namely Germany, the bloc’s largest economy, and the Netherlands – fear that supply may be undermined if the cap is too low.
Fifteen members want a gas price cap.
An acute energy crisis is occurring in Europe, with prices spiking because of the reduction of imports of natural gas from Russia. Sanctions have been imposed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The EU is speeding up the deployment of renewable energy, and other indigenous forms of energy generation such as nuclear, to fill the gap as well as to meet climate goals.
Longer-term provisions are currently being hammered out between the EU energy ministers and the European Parliament. The EU’s renewable energy directive is being reviewed.
After energy ministers approved the content of a new council regulation, on November 24, the Czech Minister of Energy and Trade, Jozef Síkela, commented: “We have taken yet another step to fight high energy prices, improve our security of energy supply and reduce our dependence on Russian energy sources. More renewables in our grids will help us reduce our demand for fossil fuels and drive down energy bills. With these rules we will speed up permitting processes that are often too lengthy and cumbersome.” The Czech Republic holds the EU presidency.
Renewables plants would be subject to a simplified assessment for some environmental obligations included in specific EU directives. Member states added a possibility to restrict the application of these provisions to only certain parts of their territory, types of technologies or projects.
The energy ministers also set maximum deadlines for granting permits for solar energy equipment, for upgrading existing renewable power plants – known as ‘repowering’ – and the deployment of heat pumps.
For solar energy equipment, member states agreed that the permit-granting process would not exceed three months. Under certain circumstances, solar energy projects on existing artificial structures will not have to be subject to a dedicated environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The installation of solar energy equipment of capacity up to 50 kW, including for those who produce solar energy for their own consumption, will benefit from a tacit agreement after one month from their application, provided there are no issues of grid safety, stability and reliability.
The Council agreed on a maximum deadline of six months for the permit-granting process for repowering projects, including all relevant environmental assessments. Where repowering results in an increase of up to 15% in the capacity of the power plant, grid connections will be permitted within just three months.
For heat pumps, member states agreed on a deadline of one month for the installation of the devices if they are below 50 MW and three months in case of ground-source heat pumps.
For certain categories of heat pumps, grid connections to the transmission or distribution grid shall be permitted following notification. Member states may exclude certain areas or structures for reasons related to the protection of cultural heritage, national defence interests or safety.
Additionally, member states would be allowed to further shorten the deadlines of the permit-granting process.
The council also agreed to give the possibility for member states to apply the faster permitting rules for ongoing permit requests, which is vital. Ongoing permit requests had originally been left out of a draft of the regulation, prompting a sharp letter from 20 renewable energy CEOs and intensive lobbying from the renewables industry.
“These measures constitute a step backwards in the simplification of permitting,” said WindEurope, the trade group, before ongoing permit requests were included.
“Permitting is the main bottleneck for the expansion of renewables,” said WindEurope. “80 GW of wind energy capacity [is] currently stuck in permitting procedures across Europe. The simplification and acceleration of permitting is essential, not least to strengthen Europe’s energy security.”
“As it stands, the Emergency Regulation would unlock only a small fraction of these projects, because it would apply to new permits only. For all the permits that are pending, the Emergency Regulation would not help. In fact, it would set us back compared to the provisions currently discussed between Council and European Parliament as part of the Renewable Energy Directive revision,” said the letter, sent on November 22.
The gas cap is proposed at €275 ($295) per MWh, a level proposed as a compromise. Critics say it is so high, it would be unlikely to be triggered.
The cap would kick in when prices are €58 higher than a global liquefied natural gas (LNG) reference price for 10 consecutive days within a fortnight.
Negotiations will continue to be heated, and some are cautiously optimistic. “We’re not opening the champagne yet, but putting the bottle in the fridge,” said the Czech Republic’s Sikela.