Boris Johnson must “radically” reduce planning approval and grid connection times for renewable projects such as wind and solar or risk failing to deliver on promises to enhance the UK’s energy independence, developers have warned.
The UK prime minister is expected to publish his energy security strategy on Thursday, aimed at reducing the UK’s exposure to international commodity markets in response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Gas and oil prices, which were already high, became even more volatile after the invasion as western countries imposed sanctions on Russia, one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels.
Although the UK is not as dependent as many of its allies on Russian oil and gas — which meet about 8 per cent and 4 per cent of UK demand, respectively — the conflict has triggered a race across Europe to find alternative supplies.
The strategy, which has been repeatedly delayed, is expected to include big new targets for low-carbon technologies including solar, offshore wind and nuclear. Johnson had initially signalled his support for more onshore wind farms but is expected to tone that down after resistance from his own backbenchers.
But developers of renewable projects have warned the new targets would be meaningless unless the strategy is coupled with a commitment to tackle the “inflexible” regimes of the planning process and connecting to the power grid.
The levels of bureaucracy mean offshore wind projects can take more than a decade to secure the required permissions before construction can start, while solar projects are suffering similar delays.
“There’s a real risk we all sit here in 12 months’ time and nothing much has changed,” Keith Anderson, chief executive of the Spanish-owned energy group ScottishPower told the Financial Times.
“In the interests of national security, we need to shift our planning system to where the default is [a presumption in favour of] projects getting built,” Anderson said. He added that he would like the government to set up either a new commission or working group, or appoint a tsar to “radically reform” the planning process and “the way we do [electricity] grid connections”.
He said two ScottishPower wind farms off the Suffolk coast, which received planning permission last week, were originally conceived more than 12 years ago.
“The stuff we are building, and about to build, today is from Gordon Brown’s era,” said Anderson, referring to the Labour prime minister defeated at the 2010 general election.
Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of SSE, the FTSE 100 utility and wind developer, said companies needed “streamlined planning to make it quicker and easier to get turbines in the water” and “accelerated investment in grid infrastructure to connect [them] up.”
He added: “Government has an opportunity to unlock [these] in its energy strategy this week and we stand ready to invest billions to make it happen.”
Government officials said they were looking at a “number of options” to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon electricity technologies, and to ensure local communities could benefit from hosting projects such as new solar or wind farms near their homes, including potentially paying cheaper prices.
But companies fear Johnson’s energy strategy will turn out to be a “high-level” document that will set out ambitious targets without any detail on how they can be delivered.
Planning delays and the amount of time it can take to connect energy projects to the grid have long been a bugbear of the energy sector, but companies and academics warn the issue is becoming even more acute.
Solar Energy UK said some of its members were encountering long delays in securing confirmation of when their projects would be connected to the electricity system.
Companies that had expected to receive a connection date last year were being told by network operators that they would have to wait at least five years to link their solar farms to the grid. The trade body said the backlog was being caused in part by multiple demands from new renewable projects as well as the bureaucracy involved.
“A lot of those projects will end up getting abandoned if we can’t find a way of getting them connected earlier,” said Cameron Witten, head of policy at Solar Energy UK, adding that the collective capacity of those projects was 4.7 gigawatts — the equivalent of one and a half new nuclear power stations.
Clean energy developers also complain that some of the government agencies involved in the planning and permission processes for technologies such as offshore wind are poorly resourced and thinly stretched. The design of the consultation process, where developers have to repeatedly write reports, send letters and hold public consultations is inflexible and could easily be done more effectively without riding roughshod through democratic processes, they said.
“No one is suggesting we should remove all planning laws . . . but it’s a question of making sure things happen at a better speed,” said Barnaby Wharton, director of future electricity systems at industry group RenewableUK.
Developers also blamed the rigid regulatory regime for electricity grids, which forces network companies to anticipate demand five years in advance. Although regulator Ofgem has tried to make the system a bit more flexible, it remains “time-consuming” and “bureaucratic”, Anderson said.
Rob Gross, director of the UK Energy Research Centre which brings together academics from universities including Imperial College and Warwick, said “the real issue” was that the electricity grid was designed around coal-fired power stations located closer to the communities they served. Offshore wind farms, in contrast, are located far out to sea and power lines often make landfall where there is no established infrastructure.
“This has to be addressed if we are to access our abundant wind resources in particular,” said Gross.
The UK government said: “We will shortly set out our energy security strategy to supercharge our renewable energy and nuclear capacity. We cannot speculate on the contents of the strategy ahead of its announcement.”