There is a growing consensus on the need for Scotland’s planning process to be reformed to encourage the installation of more onshore wind turbines. Following the National Farmers Union of Scotland‘s letter to the Scottish Government another figure, Maitland Mackie, has produced a document outlining the benefits of onshore wind energy generation for Scotland and how an outdated planning system and antiquated national energy grid are impeding the drive for 100% renewable energy generation by 2020. Mackie, an agri-business man, former chairman of the Scottish Agricultural College and ex-vice chairman of the National Farmers Union of Scotland has circulated the 28 page document, which can be found here, to councillors, MSPs (Members of Scottish Parliament) and planning officials.
Titled ‘The Real Rationale for Renewable Energy’ the document argues that investment in wind energy generation, particularly smaller scale projects, is being impeded by the need for planning process reform as the current approach to medium wind is one of misunderstanding and at best “grudging approval”. This is despite the “huge potential to revolutionise rural economies” that medium wind holds.
The single greatest thing holding back the development of medium wind is, according to Mackie, a fragmented, expensive and “torturous” planning process. He argues that “the current planning process adds 5-10% to total project costs and is a major disincentive to investment and development of local initiatives”. There are a variety of reports that planning authorities can request of developers such as ecology reports, EIAs (Environmental Impact Reports), noise reports, migration reports and, crucially, grid access reports all of which increase costs. Whilst, of course, it is essential to ensure that wind turbines are appropriately sighted, it is problematic that there is no standardised approach to medium wind between local authorities or, in some cases, between applications in the same department. This has the effect of making costs difficult to estimate accurately.
Mackie argues that “planning procedures need to be pro-actively supportive, simple, least cost [sic] and imbued with a common sense approach to landscape and wildlife.” Planning Process Reform should result in a streamlined, straight forward application process.:
“A simple planning process/procedure might contain the following ideas:
“-Planning departments welcome applications with an assumption that approval will be automatic, subject to clearly articulated restriction criteria e.g. as follows
“-The applicant will deliver site and road access finish standards that satisfy local authorities
“-No non-participatory residences within 400 yards of the site
“-The applicants has cleared any objections by Airport Authorities and local communication media
“-The applicant has a business structure that invites/welcomes participation and investment by the community and their organisations
“-The site is not a pin-pointed beauty spot, eagle sanctuary, or bat migratory stream
“-The applicant has inspected for, and notified close-by badger sets.”
Such a simplified planning process would make it quicker and easier to gain planning permission for medium wind projects whilst, crucially, allowing for standards of appropriateness to be maintained. The development of Scotland’s onshore wind resource is, after all, crucial not only to the achievement of 100% renewable energy by 2020 but also to the nation’s energy security in an increasingly volatile market, and ever increasing demand, for fossil fuels.
Another problem identified by Mackie is the antiquated state of the national energy grid. Not only are some sites that are ideal for wind energy generation rendered unsuitable due to the limitations of grid access but the costs of connecting wind turbines to the grid can vary massively:
“The current situation is that access costs for individual applications vary enormously and obviously depend on the distances to access points with available capacity.”
There is also the initial and additional cost of a grid access query which must be undertaken before anything else to establish if accessing the grid is even possible. Mackie suggested solution to the variable costs of grid access is: “establishing a standard connecting cost, where the theoretical cost differences are shared”.
Standardised pricing of grid access would certainly be beneficial to the achievement of the 100% renewable energy target as it would open up a number of otherwise suitable sites which are currently being priced out.
Another interesting point raised by Mackie, and one which is perhaps under-discussed in the wider media is the connection between renewables and food. As has been discussed previously on this blog the price is food is being pushed up as the price of fossil fuels rockets and more and more arable land is given over to the production of biofuels. Mackie points out that the most widely used artificial fertiliser in agriculture is ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is currently responsible for supporting half of the worlds food production and is manufactured primarily from hydro-carbons. Food production is already seriously stretched as the world population continues to increase dramatically and shortages can only increase unless alternative energy generation is diverted to ammonium production. So we can see yet another benefit of switching to renewable energy generation.
Whilst it is true that the planning process for medium wind can be a long, drawn out and at times difficult affair it is worth remembering that even without planning process reform it is not insurmountable. Experienced companies are more than capable of guiding a turbine proposal through the maze of a local council planning department.