The Government has opened a fast track to exempt from environmental impact assessment large renewable energy projects that it considers strategic, regardless of their size and unless they are intended to be installed in protected areas or in the sea.
Promoted by a European directive, this temporary abbreviated procedure —which will last until the end of 2024— began with a decree in March of last year, but now several of its characteristics have been modified with a new decree.
The Executive highlights that it is an emergency measure due to the war in Ukraine, while environmental organizations, defense of the territory and environmental technicians warn that this process can serve to approve megaparks with strong social rejection or that affect biodiversity, and predict a wave of complaints
The environmental impact assessment is a technical and administrative procedure that analyzes the possible risks to the environment of a project before the Administration gives it the go-ahead.
All the organizations involved and also civil society can participate in it through the period of public information.
“The competent body requests reports on environmental impact, flooding, noise, effects on landscapes or biodiversity... Then there is a period of consultation with other State bodies and civil society entities.
All this information is then returned to the promoter to modify the project”, says Íñigo Sobrini, spokesman for the Spanish Association for Environmental Impact Assessment (AEEIA).
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Decree-Law 6/2022, of March 29, created an accelerated temporary procedure —called “environmental condition determination procedure”— to process wind and photovoltaic installations that were exempted from this complex evaluation that could be applied to plants solar of up to 150 MW and wind of up to 75 MW, as long as they are located in an area of low environmental impact (according to a zoning prepared by Ecological Transition).
Decree-law 20/2022, of December 27, extends this express route to parks with no size limit and also eliminates the requirement of low environmental impact.
On the other hand, it maintains the complete environmental evaluation for projects located in protected areas (such as the Natura 2000 Network and others), in marine areas, or whose wiring to the electrical substation is more than 15 kilometers.
Ministry sources point out that most of the projects presented are between 50 and 100 MW, although it is true that some exceed that size.
The AEEIA criticizes that this new procedure eliminates the public information phase and the possibility of society participation, prevents other organizations from being consulted and represents a comparative grievance with respect to projects that have passed the environmental evaluation.
"The development of renewables should not be done by lowering environmental requirements," says its president, Íñigo Sobrini.
Luis Bolonio, spokesman for the Alianza Energía y Territorio (Aliente) —which brings together more than 200 entities— believes that the decree "is an attack on democracy and public participation that will increase conflict in rural areas with renewables."
For this reason, he predicts that neighborhood and environmental organizations will take many of the photovoltaic or wind farms that are approved through this procedure to court, since civil society will not be able to participate in any other way.
“Of course we are going to go to the courts, it is very sad that the only way that they leave the public is this,” says Bolonio.
Sobrini agrees: “Any project with impeccable processing is already denounced, so if there is no environmental evaluation, much more will be done.
This creates legal uncertainty”.
In fact, the five big Spanish environmental NGOs (Friends of the Earth, Ecologists in Action, Greenpeace, SEO/BirdLife and WWF) have ventured the same thing in a statement on Friday: "Renewable deployment is likely to slow down based on demands in the courts."
These organizations consider that the measure "exposes numerous endangered species and areas of high ecological value to unnecessary and unprecedented risk" and demand "combining the deployment of renewables with the protection of biodiversity."
A conjunctural measure
Teresa Ribera's department responds that it is a circumstantial measure in a war situation and that the projects will continue to be evaluated by the ministry's technicians.
"This measure responds to the agreement of the Council of Ministers of Energy of the European Union on December 19, which required shorter authorization processes in areas with less environmental risk," says a spokesperson for the ministry.
“It is a temporary response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, because renewables can help prevent Russia from using energy as a weapon.
The European regulation thus considers that renewables are of a higher public interest and contribute to public health and safety, which justifies temporarily restricting the usual procedures ”, she continues.
In short, "there is no other choice,
Pedro Fresco, former director of Energy Transition of the Valencian Community, points to two causes for this bottleneck: "There are many more requests for renewable energy parks than expected and the Administration is not well dimensioned, there are few technical personnel to process them."
In addition, it is a long and tedious process, which usually lasts more than a year but can easily be extended to two or three if there are allegations.
Juan Fer, spokesman for Fundación Renovables, believes that the initiative will serve to unblock important renewable projects, "but it is a patch, what we really need are more technicians in the Administration to streamline procedures at all levels."
Sources from the ministry point to another problem: many projects are presented that are unfeasible —sometimes, to speculate and paralyze other initiatives—, but the Administration cannot simply deny them, rather it has to complete the entire process, which consumes resources and slows down to viable parks.
"The Administration is very guaranteeing, even if it knows that this park cannot be done, it has to prove it," they point out.
With the new route, the promoter must present a procedure for environmental damage carried out by an external consultant and, after studying it, it will be the technicians from the Ministry of Ecological Transition who decide if this step is enough and they can continue on the fast track;
if they have doubts, they will demand the full, slower procedure.
In both cases, the technicians can demand modifications to the project.
Enoch Martínez, an environmental consulting technician and disseminator, explains: “Promoters are not stupid.
Anyone who wants to build a photovoltaic plant will first go to town to ask.
If someone takes advantage of the fast process and there is social response, they run the risk of having their project denounced, and that means many months of delay”.
Pedro Fresco, who is also the author of
The future of energy in 100 questions
(Nowtilus), defends that there is an express procedure: "The ideal would be to always have an environmental impact assessment, but we are behind terribly behind in the implementation of renewables." and we need to change it urgently.
I don't know if this regulation is ideal, but we have to do something, although there is always a risk of being wrong”.
The Valencian recalls that the European Union has urged all member countries to take this type of measure.
In fact, Portugal approved a similar initiative in December.
The spokesman for the Renewables Foundation puts another but: "That renewables become an extractive activity, that is, that large companies, which are the ones that can build macro-plants quickly, continue to control energy."
From the foundation they defend a democratization of energy, with initiatives such as energy communities or photovoltaic self-consumption.
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