Permitting issues risk derailing EU’s renewable energy targets, warns wind industry

Europe is not installing enough wind power to meet its 2030 renewable energy target and the small market is destroying the industry, according to WindEurope [Markus Distelrath / Pixabay]

Complex and slow permitting procedures are stalling the rollout of wind power in Europe, meaning the EU will likely miss its climate goals and be dependent on unreliable gas supplies for longer, the wind industry has warned.

The latest report from the industry body WindEurope, published on Thursday (24 February), gives a grim picture of a struggling European wind industry – just as EU leaders call for more renewables to alleviate the energy crisis.

“Land is not the issue. Finance is not the issue. Technology is not the issue. Public opinion is not the issue. It’s the sheer complexity of the permitting procedures,” the CEO of WindEurope Giles Dickson told EURACTIV.

According to the report, in 2021, the EU installed 11 gigawatts of wind power and is expected to install an average of 17.6 gigawatts between now and 2026.

This falls short of the 32 gigawatts the industry says is needed to reach the EU’s target of 40% of renewables in its energy mix by 2030.

While 2021 was a record year for wind installations, with the EU’s total capacity hitting 189 gigawatts, progress was 11% lower than the wind industry forecasted last year, the report warned.

And although the level of wind power in Europe is expected to grow over the next decade, it will be nowhere near the increase needed because of supply chain issues and permitting problems, the report adds.

The industry’s concerns are echoed by EU policymakers. Last week, the European Parliament called for a swift rollout of offshore renewable energy and quicker permitting.

“[Permitting] takes too long at the moment. If we do not do it in a different and much faster way, we will not reach our targets,” said the lead lawmaker for the topic, Morten Petersen.

To solve the issues, the European Commission has called on EU countries to implement the 2018 renewable energy directive, which should have been brought into force in July and includes the requirement for permits to be approved within two years of an application.

At a European Parliament discussion on the EU’s offshore renewable strategy, energy commissioner Kadri Simson said permitting is “one of the key challenges” for renewable energy.

To help tackle this, the EU executive will provide further guidance on good practices in June to address what she called “overly complex and excessively long administrative procedures”.

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Scaling up offshore renewable energy capacity is essential to reach Europe’s climate goals, but permits for new sites need to be approved quicker, according to the European Parliament.

Faltering industry

Permitting problems not only put the EU’s climate goals in jeopardy, they also hurt Europe’s wind industry. Europe has five wind turbine manufacturers, four of which are currently running at a loss, said Dickson.

“In the last two years, the industry has had to close factories making turbines and components in Germany, Spain and Denmark – Europe’s traditional wind industry strongholds,” WindEurope told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a letter earlier this week.

The industry body warned the EU executive that the European market is too small to sustain the industry, which risks losing ground to Chinese competitors.

To prevent this, it called on the EU to simplify permitting processes, support innovation and avoid negative bidding, where the wind industry has to pay for the rights to build a wind farm.

Ambition vs reality

Despite issues with permitting, EU countries’ targets for building wind power are actually ambitious, Dickson told EURACTIV.

Sweden had the most new wind installations in the EU in 2021, with 2.1 gigawatts of wind power, closely followed by Germany (1.9 gigawatts) and the Netherlands (1.3 gigawatts).

Central and eastern Europe is also looking at wind power. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have strong ambitions and are moving towards achieving them. For instance, Lithuania had the most orders with wind farm developers in the last quarter of 2021.

Poland also has ambitious plans for offshore wind, with the latest expansion plans expected to be up and running by the end of 2026. The picture in Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania is also strong even though Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not as ambitious.

EU countries are also looking at tackling the permitting issue. Italy has published a decree on the matter and France has introduced measures. Meanwhile, Germany is looking at simplifying rules and procedures to meet the new government’s target of installing 5 gigawatts of onshore wind from next year and 10 gigawatts from 2027.

But wind installers in Germany and other EU countries face another problem: resistance from anti-wind power groups that have become better organised and better funded in recent years.

“There’s a link between the complexity of the permitting procedures and the legal challenges that we often face because the more complex your permit application form is, the easier it is for a very well paid lawyer to find something in that form that you haven’t filled out quite correctly,” said Dickson.

Responding to criticisms about the wind industry’s impact on biodiversity, which is often the basis for legal battles, Dickson said installers avoid the routes of migratory birds and often install sensors to prevent birds hitting the turbines. Wind turbines can also benefit biodiversity, with offshore turbines good for molluscs, which then help grow fish stocks, he added.

The EU’s renewable energy directive is currently being revised, and includes faster permitting procedures for wind farms as well as electricity grid expansion.

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Plans to speed up permits for wind farms, promote biofuels in transport, and boost imports of green hydrogen were presented on Tuesday (15 January) by a lawmaker tasked with drawing up European Parliament’s position on the EU renewable energy directive.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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