The age of consent

July 9, 2010

Aware of the step-change in offshore windfarm construction that is required to meet today's renewable energy targets, governments around the world have instigated new planning procedures to encourage yet control offshore renewable energy development. BMT Group's Dr Ralph Rayner looks at the UK's increasingly complex consenting process.

In March the UK Crown Estate announced the successful bidders for the world's first commercial wave and tidal leasing round. The announcement followed hot on the heels of the Round three offshore wind farm awards, during which developers received leases in January.

Under these agreements, the successful parties can enter into the process of developing their zones, the next stage of which is to secure the necessary statutory consents.

The planning issues associated with major energy infrastructure projects are well documented. In an attempt to streamline the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects, the previous UK government created the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). In practical terms, this meant that as of 1 March, IPC took over responsibility from the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) for the consenting process relating to all new offshore wind farm applications with a capacity exceeding 100MW.

The future of the IPC is now in doubt as the new UK government has pledged to disband the organisation and replace it with 'an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects'. No clear succession plan had yet been established, but it is clear that whatever its name or structure, the UK still needs strategic infrastructure planning as a fundamental part of delivering renewable energy projects to the timescales required.

Step by step process
Before a developer starts physical work on any part of an offshore renewable energy installation (OREI), the relevant body must grant consent. For most Round three wind farms this will be the IPC or its replacement; however, the DECC will still handle smaller wind farms and most wave or tidal projects below the 100MW threshold for the foreseeable future. Consent must be given for each phase of a project, including any survey activity, construction, operation and decommissioning. Each phase further has consents required for all the offshore elements of a wind farm (the turbines, offshore transformers and export cable route); consent to cross the shoreline (principally the export cable route); and consents for the onshore items (export cable route and the grid connection infrastructure including substations).

Consents for principal stages of the development require in-depth studies to demonstrate the suitability of the project and its impact on the environment and on stakeholders.

For the environmental consent, developers must produce a comprehensive environmental statement based on an environmental impact assessment. This statement includes three sub-sets, the first of which covers the physical and chemical environment, such as sediment, noise, contamination, and electrometric fields.

Second is the biological environment, which includes the seabed benthos, intertidal areas, land flora and fauna, fish and shellfish, birds and marine mammals. One of the issues with Round three is that the development zones are further offshore, so they are moving away from nearshore ecology to deepwater ecology, which is closer to the environmental impact assessments that BMT regularly carries out for the offshore oil and gas industry.

The third sub-set is the human environment, which consists of but is not limited to navigation, fisheries, aviation and cultural heritage.

The development of wind farms around the UK's coastline is already beginning to complicate the approvals process for future schemes. When consent for Round one wind farms was granted, it was possible to view the navigation and environmental impacts for each scheme in isolation as they were small, discrete projects. However with the advent of Round two, wind farms were built in close proximity, so the environmental impact of a new scheme had to be viewed in the context of the existing wind farms around it. Granting consent to one wind farm might jeopardise the ability to secure consent for another.

These cumulative and combination effects dominate the agenda when Round three and the planned offshore wind farms within Scottish territorial waters are added to the mix; this issue will become even more prevalent as further wind farms are planned and developed.

The role of navigational assessment is also changing from a navigation risk-focused exercise to one which also addresses the effects on routing and access to ports. As part of its environmental and navigational assessment work for wind farms and tidal energy schemes in the UK and Pacific Rim, BMT has identified how wind farms can act as physical barriers to shipping. If longer ship routings are required to ensure safe navigation, there will be knock on effects on shipping costs and access to ports.

Negotiating agreement
Once a developer has produced the environmental statement, then whichever body is giving consent will use the statement in conjunction with the results of stakeholder consultation and other available information to make a decision.

Despite its apparent vastness, the marine environment is full of people either making a living or enjoying the amenities it provides, so identifying all the issues and stakeholders is vital in satisfying the consenting authority. UK stakeholders include statutory consultees such as the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, strategic stakeholders such as national fisherman's organisations and the Royal Yachting Association and community stakeholders such as Residents Associations. A developer's aim is to secure a statement of no objection from all the statutory consultees and to satisfy all stakeholders. Totally satisfying all stakeholders will never be possible, so full and open liaison, discussion and negotiation to identify solutions that are acceptable to all parties is key to achieving the desired outcome.

The consenting process may appear over-complicated but as with any procedurally based exercise, understanding what is required at each stage and delivering to that requirement is the route to success. OE

About The Author
Dr Ralph Rayner is sector director for energy & environment at BMT Group, an international maritime design, engineering and risk management consultancy. He has been a non-executive director of BMT Scientific Marine Services since 2006 and provides industry outreach advisory services through his role with the US Consortium for Ocean Leadership. He is an Industrial Fellow at the London School of Economics. Previously he was managing director of several businesses of the Fugro Group and has worked extensively with the offshore oil and gas industry in the renewable sector.



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