Renewable energy projects require support from new planning policies

As we move away from reliance on fossil fuels, our need for renewable energy only grows and so does the need for necessary policy frameworks to support this development. 

First published in The Herald.

5 April 2024

Wind turbine in field with sheep

We are in a state of transition in terms of energy generation. The world is grappling with demand for electricity and the requirement to decarbonise its generation. 

The reliance on fossil fuels is being phased out and the need to derive our electricity from renewable sources is rising. 

The Scottish Government has targeted the delivery of at least 20GW of additional renewable electricity capacity by 2030. That is 20MW more than existing capacity. 

An eye-watering number and one that will deliver only 50% of Scotland’s current total energy demand. 

We now have fewer than six years to deliver this, meaning we must deliver more renewable energy capacity in the next five years than we have done in the previous 30. 

To achieve this, we need a policy framework that supports the development of renewable energy projects.

We now have National Planning Framework 4(NPF4). NPF4 contains a wide range of policies, with three that may influence renewables projects – biodiversity enhancement, socio-economic benefits, and community wealth building.

Policy 3 says that major developments “will only be supported where it can be demonstrated that the proposal will conserve, restore and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks so they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”. 

This is broadly similar to Biodiversity Net Gain (BGN) south of the border. BNG is part of a statutory framework with a well-defined metric, enabling developers to formulate proposals that meet the BNG requirement. 

In Scotland, there is no such metric (yet) and no clear definition of what “enhancement” means, leading to an inconsistent approach which does nothing to provide certainty to developers. Clear guidance is required. 

Policy 11 says that energy projects will only be supported “where they maximise net economic impact, including local and community socio-economic benefits”. 

Does this require reliance on a local supply chain and workforce, or must it provide a certain level of benefit to the wider economy? Renewables projects tend to have an economic halo effect. Imposing onerous planning conditions containing unachievable economic requirements to meet this policy may render projects unmarketable. At a time when renewable energy projects are desperately needed, this should be avoided.

Policy 25 requires development proposals to “contribute to local or regional community wealth building strategies and be consistent with local economic priorities in order to be supported”. 

This policy should be viewed positively by developers. It can be a tool to set out a comprehensive account of ways in which projects contribute to local communities and enable those communities to participate and share in the projects’ benefits.

In these policy areas, there is, to date, limited guidance. This should follow, and an understanding of best practice should emerge. However, NPF4 is less than one year old and there has already been litigation on the policies relating to housing, retail, and environmental mitigation. 

It may be that further Court decisions are required to understand the correct meaning of these policies.