A “Fit for 55” label could allow for streamlining of procedures and removal of unnecessary red tape for positive energy projects

By Sean Kelly, MEP (pictured)
Winter 2021

Sean Kelly, MEPThe European Union is currently undergoing an ambitious systemic change in how we produce, consume and store energy. The currently energy crisis shows the need to deploy more renewables, but permitting and licensing procedures remain one of the biggest hurdles in mass deployment of renewable technologies. I propose a "Fit for 55" label on projects that will allow the streamlining of procedures and process, removal of unnecessary red tape and granting of higher priority status to applications.

Energy transitions are nothing new; we have advanced from the muscle power of human beings and animals to the industrial revolution's large, reliable and seemingly inexhaustible source of coal, then to the use of crude oil after the First World War and now towards the current trend of environmentally coherent renewable sources.

The motivation for our newest energy transition is of course much different, and indeed much more complicated. Instead of an evolution of energy sources that are more efficient in terms of production output, we now have to redesign our fuel and electricity systems so that we can maintain societal and economic order whilst staying within our planetary boundaries. Combined with the short time we have to make this fundamental switch, this energy transition is certainly unique.

Climate change is now rightly at the forefront of government minds across the world, and it is not hard to see why. The year 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year since recording started, and with storms, floods and wildfires intensifying across the world the time to act on climate change is narrowing.

It is clear that addressing sustainability challenges and climate change will be pivotal to the future growth of our economies, as the cost of inaction now will be far exceeded by the costs involved with adaptation, never mind the social and political instability this would create.

The EU needs a secure, reliable and durable energy supply as part of the transition to a low-carbon economy, yet it is also clear that we must keep the lights on as we switch to a clean energy system, otherwise we may not have a transition at all.

We cannot achieve our Green Deal targets without a massive expansion of renewable energy. In this regard, the Commission has proposed the "Fit for 55" Package, the largest single batch of legislation to tackle climate change proposed by any government, anywhere. It is designed to update EU laws to meet the new 2030 emissions reduction target of 55% below 1990 levels (hence that catchy name).

Currently, Europe is suffering from a gas price spike and a drop in the volumes of gas we receive. This becomes another key reminder that we need to deploy more renewables to shield ourselves from price shocks in international commodity markets.

By their very nature, wind and solar are intermittent. Therefore, we must plan to replace our fossil-fuel based back-up system with battery storage and demand response, as well as green hydrogen, but we also cannot hide from the fact that there still is a role to play for transitional fuels until then.

Retrofitting gas generation plants to run on hydrogen and ensuring that any new plants are designed in a way to make conversion easy will be key in this transition.

To achieve this, we must take an innovation centric approach, promoting and developing, and most importantly investing in, the technologies that bring us closer to a decarbonised economy.

However, the good news is that many of the technologies we need already exist. The not so good news is that many barriers to slow down their commercial deployment also exist. The reality is that if we are to achieve our ambitious targets we must fast track the removal of planning or market-based obstacles to ensure rapid delivery of renewable energy technologies.

Permitting and licensing procedures remain one of the biggest hurdles in achieving mass deployment of renewable technologies. Procedures for granting permits differ in Member States, and with more cross border cooperation on complex energy projects, we are likely to see more and more unnecessary time wasted in getting the required bureaucracy in order.

Let's take the example of my own country, Ireland, which is rightly viewed as a world leader in integration of renewable energy. The country has enormous offshore wind electricity generating capabilities, but unfortunately, this potential remains mostly on paper as we have been slow to develop projects.

There are a few reasons for this, but one factor that cannot be ignored are planning laws. This was highlighted most acutely recently as one of the world's leading energy companies, Equinor, decided not to continue with offshore wind development citing local regulatory uncertainty.

There is a serious need for Ireland to change its regulatory and planning system. Although action is being taken, we are not moving quickly enough to develop the offshore wind projects needed to meet targets in the governments Climate Action Plan. This leads to a lack of confidence in the industry and in the international supply chain, which must urgently be addressed.

Beyond the regulatory framework, more resources need to be allocated to planning authorities so that they can speed up planning applications for positive energy projects. This situation is not a unique to Ireland, and to put it bluntly, if we collectively do not address permitting and planning differently, then we are doomed to fail the next generation.

In this regard, I propose a "Fit for 55" label on projects that will allow the streamlining of procedures and processes, removal of unnecessary red tape and the granting of a higher priority status to positive energy projects. This label should effectively guarantee that necessary positive energy projects receive far quicker licensing and planning authorisation.

There is no value to citizens in having clean technologies available if we cannot get them deployed. We must make sure our planning and regulatory systems are fit to address the climate challenge.

Seán Kelly MEP has been an MEP for Ireland South since 2009 and is the leader of the Fine Gael delegation in the European Parliament. A member of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee, Kelly has worked extensively on renewable energy and energy efficiency policy.