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EU Policy. Green groups welcome Commission caution on fast-track renewables deployment

A wind farm near near Stetten, north of Kaiserslautern, Germany, March 19, 2024
A wind farm near near Stetten, north of Kaiserslautern, Germany, March 19, 2024 Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Robert Hodgson
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Environmental groups have expressed relief at European Commission guidelines for the acceleration of renewable energy deployment, which stress the need to respect nature protection rules.

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Green groups have welcomed European Commission guidelines underlining the need for thorough environmental impact assessments before governments designate areas for the accelerated deployment of wind turbines, solar arrays and other clean energy infrastructure, amid a drive to reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports from Russia.

The RePowerEU plan hastily drafted amid the energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 promised an easing of planning permitting, long identified by the wind power industry as a major bottleneck. But environmental groups were alarmed by the prospect of reduced nature protection in the interests of Europe’s energy security.

However, they have broadly welcomed guidelines published on Monday (14 May) stipulating that the ‘renewable acceleration areas’ (RAAs) member states have to designate by 2026 under the revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) must be subject to scrutiny in line with the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive.

Where there is likely “significant impact” on a Natura 2000 site, a further impact assessment is also required in line with the Habitats Directive, a cornerstone of EU nature protection legislation, the Commission clarifies in its guidance.

The campaign group BirdLife Europe was broadly positive in its reaction to the text, noting for instance that the EU executive was calling on member states to promptly complete the Natura 2000 network so that possible impacts can be assessed reliably, along with references to protecting migratory routes.

David Howell, senior energy policy officer with the NGO, stressed however that governments would need to make a “step change improvement in the quality of their energy and environmental governance” in order to comply with the recommendations and their nature protection obligations.

Moreover, the rush to roll out more renewable energy infrastructure should not distract from reducing overall energy demand, he told Euronews in an email exchange. “BirdLife is convinced that the revision of the RED provides an opportunity to make a massive step forward to maximize public awareness, involvement and participation in the urgent energy transition, to help accelerate that process, and also slow and reverse the extinction crisis,” Howell said.

Elif Gündüzyeli, who heads a European renewable energy programme at the Nature Conservancy, an NGO, also saw the guidance as a step in the right direction. “The Commission's clarification on the role of RAAs as part of the broader national spatial mapping for renewables – as well as emphasis on the need for robust stakeholder and community engagement at early stages of project development – is very much welcome,” Gündüzyeli said.

The post-invasion revision of the RED increases the EU’s renewable energy target to at least 42.5% of overall consumption by 2030. To facilitate this it sets strict limits on the time in which public authorities must make a decision on granting planning permission, to one year in a designated RAA and a maximum of two years elsewhere.

The trade association Wind Europe, which had long campaigned for a solution to the planning bottleneck it said often saw developers waiting a decade or more for approval, also welcomed the new guidance, noting that the legislative changes following on from the RePowerEU plan had already helped raise the share of wind power in Europe’s electricity mix to 19%, up from 14% in 2021.

CEO Giles Dickson, said REPowerEU had been a “decisive kick-start for Europe’s transition to local, clean and cheap electricity”. WindEurope – whose members are alert to the risk of undercutting by Chinese turbine producers in particular – also welcomed parallel guidance on the design of auctions for deployment of generation capacity, notably clarification from the EU executive that the application of non-price criteria in auctions, such as cyber and data security, should be technology specific.

“Europe’s moving away from wind auctions based solely on price. Good,” Dickson said. “Non-price award criteria reward those projects that bring the biggest value to consumers and society. And tighter pre-qualification criteria help raise the bar on what sort of turbines get built.”

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