Grids alliance aims to counter renewables 'NIMBY syndrome'

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EU energy ministers have teamed up with electricity grid operators and environmental groups to counter the NIMBY syndrome on new renewable energy infrastructure builds.

An unusually broad alliance of Transmissions System Operators (TSO’s), EU leaders, and NGOs set the ball rolling at a launch on 5 December, with backing from 11 EU energy ministers in states such as Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Last month, the European Commission agreed a new streamlined process for approving new electricity pylons and transmission lines, infrastructure that is desperately needed to integrate wind and solar-powered renewable energies into Europe’s grid networks.

“NIMBY syndrome has forced TSOs to this table and we need to have the courage to stare it in the eyes,” said Ariel Brunner, the head of EU policy for Birdlife, referring to ‘Not in my back yard’ opposition to grid construction.

While real concerns over health and environmental damage were involved, less scientific issues such as people’s perceptions, emotions and attachment to landscape also had to be addressed, he said.

British MEP Graham Watson (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe) said resistance from the fossil-fuel industry was also a factor.

“We know that the oil and gas industry are spending a lot of money lobbying against it - and in favour of shale gas - but I believe that the momentum we’ve built up to make this green energy switch will see it happen,” he told EurActiv.

Renewable Grids Initiative

The Renewable Grids Initiative (RGI) dovetails with a newly reduced maximum four-year appeals period against new grid developments in the EU’s energy infrastructure package.

To help this along, the RGI proposes:

  • Enhanced transparency procedures for data and investments, providing stakeholders with access to all relevant information;
  • Mainstreaming dialogue and consultation with local communities whenever new builds are planned;
  • Offering such communities the opportunity to change and modify proposals, particularly in the early project stages;
  • A commitment to the EU’s decarbonisation targets for 2050.

Critics say that in the past, new infrastructure has been proposed by utilities, moderated by regulators, planned by TSOs and then presented to often-suspicious local communities as a fait accompli.

But one in three planned investments are currently tied up by planning appeals, and these can last as long as 25 years.

Village oddballs

On the fringes of the initiative’s launch, executives of major European energy firms told EurActiv that while some public hostility to projects was legitimate, the industry had problems with unpredictable and idiosyncratic complaints often led by – or confined to – village oddballs.

“If you have to take into account irrational demands [sometimes] coming from one individual, the price you have to pay is two or three years of delay,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, chief executive of Belgium’s Elia group. “Can we afford this?”

One oft-suggested way around aesthetic and health-related objections to new transmission lines, could be to bury them underground.

“Probably we will lay most of the cabling underground,” Watson said. “It has higher short-term costs but they are still less than fighting planning permission cases.”

The process of underground cabling may be less expensive than some think, but environmentalists say that it also poses its own threat to biodiversity.

Landscape aesthetics

“In landscape aesthetics it’s often better to bury cables underground but environmentally, it should be assessed on a case by case basis,” said Ivan Scrase, senior climate change officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“If you put a cable underground you have to keep a wide area of 100m [around it] mowed,” he told EurActiv.

Vandermeiren said burying lines only made sense in urban areas as in rural areas, line repairs would require digging up large tracts of countryside.

But other industry representatives wanted to keep their options open.  “We have a different approach,” said Ben Voorhorst, operational director of the Dutch TSO TenneT, one of the five largest grid operators in Europe.

“If it comes to 110 kilovolts (kV) or lower we don’t care, cabling is fine and prices are comparable these days, but at 380 kV, prices are higher and we have technical concerns about the reliability of the system,” he told EurActiv. “But if it’s safe and society wants the higher prices, it’s not an issue for us.”

Last summer, an investigation into TenneT was launched by Germany's regulatory agency, the Bundesnetzagentur, over an alleged failure to link a North Sea wind farm to the grid. Insufficient funding and regulatory uncertainties over liability risks were blamed.

Positions: 

“It is always difficult to explain to local opponents that they have to support the infrastructure because security of supply is in the national interest,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, chief executive of Belgium’s Elia group.  “But if you provide a lot of information upfront, and involve all or most of the stakeholders, you will decrease the opposition,” he added.

“With some projects there is no opposition at all and in others there is huge opposition,” Boris Schucht, the CEO of the German TSO 50Hertz told EurActiv. “It doesn’t follow clear rules. But it’s mostly about special constellations in certain regions and we have of course projects that are very important for renewable integration in East Germany and for transition lines from north to south Germany. It’s a pity that especially on these lines we face a lot of public resistance as we have to cross beautiful areas. We are facing more and more a situation where we don’t talk about the ‘why’ anymore, just the ‘how’.

“We have learned from the NGO’s to take the external world better into account and look from the outside what is really necessary for society, instead of looking at it as a technical problem,” said Ben Voorhorst, the operational director of the Dutch TSO TenneT. “We’ve learned that to build cooperation you have to invest in trying to understand each other, not just explain what we want to achieve but listening to what they want to achieve and trying to build trust.”

Ariel Brunner, the head of EU policy for Birdlife told EurActiv that TSOs had been better at responding to environmental complaints than other sections of the electricity industry in generic terms. “Certainly, they have been getting better over recent decades,” he said.  “The earlier you come into the process, the readier they are to rethink things and one of the things were tying to do with RGI is ensure that from both sides we’re able to incorporate environmental concerns from day one rather than waking up to a conflict when things are already bombed. When we complain about existing stuff they’re doing modifications on, it is often already half-funded and extremely expensive to change.”

“TSO’s are not very homogenous,” said Stephan Singer, the director of WWF’s global energy policy. “The ones you see [at this launch] are the ones that want to drive change and I think that other TSO’s notably in eastern Europe are not that far yet. They’re the appendixes of the regulators and governments and just do what the government allows them to do. A couple of TSOs here have an interest in going beyond government and trying to fill a new role under the market liberalisation directive where unbundling has occurred and grid operation is not necessarily part of utility planning.”

But bridges still need to be built. “Because we have had a bad history with big utilities in Germany, others have to show us how they can deliver,” said Klaus Milke, chairman of the Germanwatch NGO. “It needs trust-building and building up acceptance with all the different stakeholders in the field, not only politicians who are aware of problems but parts of business and the financial sector and the media and civil society.”

Timeline: 
  • Early 2013: Final approval of EU energy infrastructure package expected by European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers.
  • By end 2013: LIst of projects of common interest to be finalised.
  • 2014: Planned entry into force of 'Connecting Europe Facility' (CEF), under which infrastructure will be financed.
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