According to European Commission proposals published in October, local populations would have three years to try to prevent new transmission grid projects being built. Beyond that deadline, the projects would go through.
“That time frame is probably too stringent,” said António Correia de Campos, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the €9.1-billion energy infrastructure package, which includes the three-year proposal.
“We need to relax a bit and look into the viability of performing these tasks to such an early and stringent schedule,” he said.
The infrastructure package also proposes spending €45 million to create ‘grids tsars’ with the power to overrule local objections and push through projects that meet “significant delays or implementation difficulties.”
But EurActiv understands that member states are also worried that such provisions could undermine the concept of subsidiarity, or devolving power to the most decentralised authority.
That has set alarm bells ringing in Brussels. “Because we are talking about European climate targets, we have very strong concerns that these permitting provisions may not stay in the final text,” an EU source told EurActiv.
“We see them as an opportunity, a large contribution to the infrastructure package, and as consistent with best practices in Europe,” the source added.
The need to address bottlenecks has long been acknowledged by the European Commission.
An internal working paper accompanying the original infrastructure proposal, seen by EurActiv, noted enormous delays due to public opposition and administrative red tape. That is the case, for example, for Steiermarkleitung, an Austrian power line project that has faced delays for up to 25 years.
The same applies to the 380 kV French-Spanish interconnector power line, which was commissioned in the 1970s and is not expected to be finished until at least 2014.
While strong public opposition and lengthy administrative procedures are nominally blamed, observers allege that France, which sources nearly 90% of its electricity from nuclear power, has little interest in importing cheaper energy supplies.
“The real time frame for the approval and building of big lines or interconnectors is in the order of 10 years,” said Arthouros Zervos, the president of the European Wind Energy Association.
“I can see the point, that three years is a short time but you have to be stringent,” Zervos told EurActiv. “If you are ‘more relaxed’, you will be talking about meeting EU targets in 2030, rather than 2020.”
A potential answer to these problems has been found in new research by an independent group of engineering consultants, which has found that burying electricity cables is far cheaper than was previously thought.
Concerns about the unsightliness of electricity pylons were also addressed last October in a competition to fashion ‘designer pylons’, which was won by a Danish ‘T-Pylon’ design.
A more weighty criticism of the energy infrastructure package is that its 12 favoured projects prioritise fossil fuels over renewables.
“The distortion in favour of gas is particularly evident in the proposed priority corridors, with four corridors related to gas and only one entirely devoted to renewable energy transmission,” the Green MEP Claude Thurmes said at the time of the package’s launch.
Nonetheless, advocates of a rapid expansion and ‘smartening’ of network systems maintain that current networks were mostly built in the mid-20th century and are unable to integrate renewable energies, which are needed if the EU is to meet its 2020 targets.
“If you want more renewables in place, you need more transmission lines,” an EU official told EurActiv. “Without it, you will not reach the 2020 targets. It’s as simple as that.”