Europe has a plan to stop buying Russian natural gas within five years by installing wind turbines and solar panels on a massive scale. But on the ground, a gauntlet of environmental groups, local opposition and bureaucracy stands in the way.
In Germany, Europe’s biggest buyer of Russian gas, wildlife protection groups routinely challenge wind farms, stretching their approval time to more than five years. In Italy, Europe’s second-biggest Russian gas consumer, authorities reject 90% of all wind energy projects. Permitting obstacles have slowed the development of utility-scale solar farms across the continent. Regulations and public opposition in Poland, France and Hungary have shut off large areas of the countries from wind-energy development.
“The discrepancy between the politics and what’s happening on the ground with implementation has never been so big,” said Steffen Lackmann, chief project officer at WestfalenWIND, a German wind-energy developer. “When the war started at the end of February I thought the approval process would go faster…Nothing really changed yet.”
The obstacles are threatening to undercut Europe’s political will for a rapid shift away from fossil fuels in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. The European Union is proposing to more than double the bloc’s electricity generated from wind and more than triple it from solar panels by 2030, when the 27-nation bloc should generate 45% of its energy from renewable sources.
To hit these targets, EU officials are pushing national governments to cut the approval time for renewable-energy projects to less than two years by streamlining permitting regulations. They are calling for the creation of special zones where projects could be approved in less than a year. National leaders are also vowing to accelerate their renewable-energy rollouts.
They face a powerful coalition of interests that has been trying to pump the brakes on renewable-energy development as wind turbines and solar panels have spread across the continent. Local officials increasingly fear wind towers and solar farms will clash with Europe’s landscapes of châteaus, churches and farms; wildlife groups say an earlier generation of projects didn’t properly account for the impact on birds and bats.
“There are areas where renewable capacity has already used the low-hanging fruit in terms of land available, and you can see opposition coming,” said Jonathan Bonadio, senior policy adviser at SolarPower Europe, the industry’s main lobbying group.
WestfalenWIND has been fighting for six years to upgrade a wind-energy park in northwest Germany with modern turbines that would be up to three times more powerful. Standing in the way was NABU, one of Germany’s most powerful environmental groups.
Local authorities at first rejected the plan after NABU said the upgrade posed a threat to local bird species such as the red kite.
Authorities then approved the project but with a major restriction: The turbines could only operate at night and only from March to October. Still, NABU filed a lawsuit seeking to block it.
Now, under a settlement with NABU, the company has started construction, but will install special cameras that will automatically shut the turbines if they detect threatened bird species approaching.
“It’s just not in line with the political ambition that renewables have an outstanding public interest and serve national security,” WestfalenWIND’s Mr. Lackmann said.
Katharina Stucke, an adviser at NABU, said that data collected over decades of Germany operating wind parks suggests the installations have diminished red kite populations locally, though she acknowledges that the population nationally has remained stable. Projects to upgrade parks need to be examined, she said, because modern wind towers are taller and the blades are much longer, posing a bigger threat to birds.
“We can’t just look at the climate crisis and forget about the biodiversity crisis,” Ms. Stucke said.
In France, rules that forbid wind turbines near military radar and flight paths exclude them from large parts of the country. New requirements to examine the impact on the landscape have slowed permitting.
In Poland and Hungary, laws passed in 2016 made it nearly impossible to build new wind parks in both countries.
Italy’s bureaucracy has put the brakes on hundreds of renewable-energy projects in recent years. It takes on average seven years to get the green light on renewable-energy projects, according to a study commissioned by industry lobby group Elettricità Futura. That is, if the go-ahead comes at all.
Though the government says it wants to rapidly boost Italy’s renewable-energy production, more than 70% of the 264 wind and solar projects presented last year are still awaiting authorization, according to Irex, a think tank focused on the energy sector.
Even when companies get approval from local and regional governments, their plans often get tied up with the Ministry of Culture, which is in charge of approving projects that impact the landscape. Almost 600 renewable energy projects are currently being reviewed by the ministry, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Despite the rise in energy prices and the need to wean ourselves off Russian gas, the government has failed to take extraordinary steps necessary to speed up the authorization process,” said Agostino Re Rebaudengo, the chairman of Elettricità Futura.
Most projects that get blocked by the government end up in court, where the companies often get a favorable ruling. By then, several years have passed and the technology has evolved, but the company has to reapply for the authorization if it changes the technical plans.
Companies that want to reduce the number of turbines in an operational wind farm by replacing them with new more powerful ones also must go through a lengthy approval process.
Offshore wind projects have also run into a string of obstacles. A project off the coast of the southern region of Puglia recently started generating electricity—the first offshore wind farm in Italy. The government has touted the project as a success story for the renewable-energy industry, but it took 14 years from the request for approval to the project’s inauguration.
Only about one in 10 wind projects presented for approval get built and of those, the vast majority are shrunk during the process, in order to get the green light, according to Simone Togni, chairman of ANEV, an association representing wind-energy companies.
“We are installing only a fifth of what we should be doing if we want a chance to meet the EU targets,” said Mr. Togni.
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