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We Need a War Effort on Wind Turbines

Europe should build wind farms as if winning the war in Ukraine depended on it: After all, the winter is gusty, wind power doesn’t emit carbon and you don’t have to pay unfriendly governments to make it blow.To be sure, we need to mobilize every available energy resource to reduce power bills and keep the lights on. We must keep nuclear plants operating, tap new gas supplies and add more energy storage. Yet we’re still not building renewables fast enough, and that’s often due to byzantine administrative hurdles and local opposition. The solution is to cut red tape and turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs” —  people who say, “Yes, in my back yard.” 

While turbine manufacturers have struggled lately with competitive auctions and cost inflation that upset their customers’ financial calculations, delays with permits and a shortage of available land are long-standing problems: It can take almost a decade for various impact assessments to be completed, the legal arguments to end and the turbines to start spinning.

Vestas Wind Systems A/S’s European turbine orders plunged by three-quarters year-over-year in the April-to-June quarter, which it blamed in part on a “lack of permitting progress.”

About 7% fewer German wind-power permits have been issued so far this year compared with the first eight months of 2021, according to preliminary data from the onshore wind energy agency, FA Wind. Capacity additions are also lagging far behind their peak in 2017. German turbine manufacturer Nordex SE’s decision to shutter a blade plant in Rostock in June spoke volumes.

These are astonishing failures, considering the urgency of the energy and climate crises. Do we really want to switch even more coal plants back on? Fortunately, European governments seem to have realized they can no longer afford bureaucratic foot-dragging.

Revamping permit issuance is a big focus of the bloc’s RePowerEU plan to accelerate renewables, which it has declared a matter of “overriding public interest.” Many promising ideas are on the horizon to shorten the approval process and help European Union member states more than double wind capacity by 2030.

However, replicating this sense of urgency at a local level, where authorities are often understaffed or lack expertise, isn’t easy. Changing the minds of NIMBYist locals and environmental pressure groups that too often stymie projects due to concerns about noise, shadows, blighted views and species protection is also a big challenge.

Though modern wind turbines stand more than 150 meters tall, transport and installation are the easy parts, requiring only a few months: By contrast, planning and permitting often take donkey’s years.  

First, the developer must find somewhere to build. That’s a problem in places such as Bavaria or Poland, which enacted so-called “10H” rules several years ago that all but stopped wind development in both. (Turbines must be placed at a minimum distance of 10 times their height from settlements). In Hungary, wind parks can’t be constructed within 12 kilometers (7 1/2 miles) of an inhabited area, which pretty much rules out the entire country. Though a leader in offshore wind, England has had a de facto ban on onshore development since 2015 due to restrictive planning rules.

Then the paperwork piles up: Bloomberg’s Will Mathis vividly described the 36,000 printed pages that EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG was required to submit earlier this year to erect just three wind turbines in its home state.

Reaching the finish line can be a Sisyphean endeavor: Satisfying the various national and local agencies takes so long that the application must be be resubmitted because the turbines are obsolete. A federal system like Germany’s adds further complexity because each state has different procedures.

Even after receiving the necessary approvals, the wind-farm operator must reckon on legal challenges: The more complicated the permitting process, the more likely opponents will find grounds to appeal. And woe betide the developer if a rare bat or red kite is sighted in the vicinity.

The EU’s recent insistence that countries nominate less ecologically sensitive “go-to” areas with shortened planning processes is a sensible first step to ease the backlog.

Kudos to Germany -- Europe’s largest wind market by installed capacity --  for promising to designate 2% of its territory for wind power, compared with 0.8% currently, although the decade-long implementation phase is too long, in my view.

So-called repowering projects – refitting old wind farms with more powerful modern turbines – should be fast-tracked because the ecological risks are already known, and there’s an existing grid connection.

When it comes to cutting red tape, Denmark provides a good model: The Danish Energy Agency acts as one-stop shop for offshore wind permitting, coordinating with all the relevant authorities on behalf of the developer.

Project managers should be allowed to apply for various permits in parallel (rather than waiting on one agency’s response before submitting the next) and to specify a range of technology parameters to avoid obsolescence.

I also like Spain’s exercise of “positive administrative silence”: If an authority doesn’t respond within a specified period, that part of the application is automatically deemed approved. And applications should of course be fully digitized: It’s the 21st century, for goodness’ sake! 

Wind power already has strong public support, but the energy crisis offers the chance to persuade remaining skeptics. Sharing part of the financial proceeds of a wind-farm project with the local community can help win their consent, either via a levy that pays for better public services, or by lowering their electricity bills. In return, the minimum distance from dwellings could be reduced or scrapped. (Happily, Poland and Bavaria’s 10H rules are already being watered down.)  

And rather than focus only on climate benefits, wind power should be presented as a guarantor of energy sovereignty and a buttress against power rationing.  

This might temper the resistance of conservation groups who must recognize that blocking wind farms is potentially self-defeating. If unchecked, the climate crisis will endanger far more species than will turbine blades. If that doesn’t work, governments might consider a more blunter approach: capping the number of possible legal appeals.

Of course, it’s unfair for a city dweller like me to advocate for the countryside to be blanketed with turbines; they won’t be built in my backyard. But you know what else is unfair? Opposing clean power generation and then demanding taxpayers’ help when the flood waters arrive, or power bills explode.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Truss Goes the Wrong Way on UK Energy Bailout: Javier Blas

• Windfall Profit Taxes Are Pure Economic Populism: Andreas Kluth

• A Renewable Energy Bubble Is Hit by the Perfect Storm: Chris Bryant

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Europe. Previously, he was a reporter for the Financial Times.

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