Nature protection is not an obstacle for renewables

Environmental protection must not fall victim to Europe’s urgency for accelerating renewables deployment to get rid of Russian gas. Rather, the main bottlenecks of the energy transition lie in the lack of grid connections, skilled professionals and financial resources —especially on the Eastern side of the bloc.

The invasion of the Ukraine has urged the EU to develop a fast-paced emergency plan to drastically reduce the bloc’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels: the ‘RePowerEU‘ strategy.

While the concrete measures will be presented by the European Commission on 18 May, the main lines of action were already disclosed, which range from diversifying gas suppliers to boosting renewables. To achieve the latter, the draft proposes to relax environmental regulations, by allowing companies in the EU to build wind and solar projects without the need of an environmental impact assessment.

A regression in nature protection is unjustifiable from any point of view, as we shall see below, and it would put the European Green Deal at stake. Nature protection and restoration are as important climate tools as renewable energy. The Green 10, the coalition of ten of the largest environmental NGOs in Europe, has sent a joint letter to European Commission’s leaders urging them to delete this provision from the RePowerEU.

To scale up the deployment of solar and wind technologies, the EU would need to remove certain bureaucratic barriers. This can and should be done through robust spatial planning (with go-to and no-go areas) and more resources for environmental authorities, not at the cost of weakening environmental legislation.

Gas vicious circle

Ukraine’s ravaging devastation makes turning off the Russian gas tap to stop funding the Kremlin’s war chests the highest priority right now.

Bearing this in mind, the EU should be wary of creating new fossil fuel dependencies on other autocratic regimes or on climate-wrecking fracking projects. Our Paris Agreement Compatible energy scenario demonstrates that the EU could virtually exit from fossil fuels by 2040 through a massive mobilisation of energy savings, renewables and electrification.

Unfortunately, the RePowerEU plan still promotes large fossil investments to cope with the phase-out of Russian supplies and those investments will not allow us to finally break this vicious circle. Meanwhile, energy prices continue to soar, the climate crisis worsens and public money is squandered on offsetting the consequences.

Renewables momentum

While a long-term vision is overlooked, the plan does provide significant steps forward for the short term that, if well implemented, could pave the way for an ambitious green transformation of the energy sector.

The REPowerEU strategy foresees a massive deployment of solar panels, heat pumps and solar thermal heating systems in the coming years that can drastically reduce the use of gas in buildings.

According to a leaked draft, the EU expects to install more than twice today’s solar PV capacity and around 10 million heat pumps in five years. The proposal will also envisage higher renewable and energy efficiency targets by 2030 and a targeted push for wind energy and green hydrogen.

EU policymakers acknowledge that this swift transformation of the energy sector will entail great technical, human and financial challenges. Bureaucracy, competencies issues between administrations and lack of skilled energy professionals have been identified by the Commission as the main barriers to repower Europe.

However, it’s astonishing that the leaked RePowerEU’s main proposal to overcome the hurdles of the energy transition is none other than weakening environmental regulations, even though this has never been a major concern for the industry and obstacles to renewables roll-out lie elsewhere.

Avoiding nature deregulation

Speeding up the uptake of renewables is urgent, but it should not come at the cost of undermining the existing environmental regulation.

The RePowerEU proposal includes blanket exemptions to allow companies to build wind and solar projects without the need of an environmental impact assessment in what the Commission will define as ‘go-to’ areas. Mapping suitable areas for renewable deployment, like urban and industrial areas, is important, but existing environmental legislation must continue to apply fully in these areas too. 

If this mapping process is done well and nature protection is properly taken into consideration from the outset, this may reduce the need for later assessments while ensuring compliance with existing legislation. Planning is key and needs to be streamlined but the assessments are important safeguards. 

Rule of law and existing environmental legislation remain fundamental and are not obstacles to progress. The EU has spent five decades creating a body of environmental and health protections and citizen engagement procedures that also supports the legitimacy of EU institutions, the decision-making process and democracy. Declaring all renewables to be of overriding public interest to circumvent all these mechanisms and safeguards creates a bad precedent. lIt has the risk of being used tomorrow by vested interests on raw materials and other issues.

Overcoming real bottlenecks

Decades of climate inaction in most Member States have led to bottlenecks today that may hamper the rapid deployment of renewable solutions.

This is being felt especially in the Eastern side of the bloc, which has seen larger delays in renewable transitions for economic reasons, due to a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and lower public climate commitments. With the invasion of Ukraine, the security question has fueled the need to break away from Russian energy dependence, especially since Moscow cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland.

As a result, the public interest in switching to renewables is reaching record levels in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, consumers lament that this ‘green awakening’ is being hampered by shortages of technology, infrastructure and a skilled workforce.

Due to grid constraints, households are already being denied connection to new installations or are being granted lower capacity installations in several countries like Slovenia, Slovakia, and Poland. While the combined installation of Renewable Energy Sytems with energy storage and smart technology can mitigate the problem, urgent investments are needed in the distribution grids connecting rural areas.

The energy transition remains also understaffed and presents a major employment opportunity for these countries. Heat pump installers, energy experts in renewables and building renovation companies are highly requested across Europe and the RePowerEU plan should allocate substantial funds to training plans for the energy and building sectors.

Long production chains in renewables supplies are also a major issue for countries with less competitive markets, like Central and Eastern Member States. The EU must address this lack of a strategic supply chain for batteries and solar PV panels. They must increase Europe’s energy independence while ensuring no Member State is left behind in the energy transition.

In practice, these bottlenecks are creating additional administrative burdens on the existing bureaucracy. Industry, NGOs and public authorities agree that lengthy permitting procedures are killing many renewables projects in Europe. This is not, however, a result of the EU’s current environmental legislation, but of double competence problems, and low levels of digitisation and standardisation of procedures.

As some industries are proposing to the European Commission, bureaucratic processes for renewable projects could be streamlined by increasing the capacity of concerned public authorities and creating ‘one stop-shop’ for permitting. This new public body would cover and concentrate different public agencies, both at national and local/regional level.

In any case, addressing all these administrative issues can and must be done without undermining the European Green Deal. Europe is at a historic turning point to define the future of its energy supply and false arguments fed by fear, anti-EU interests, and vested interests should be rejected. The only way forward must be nature-positive renewables.