Fr, 2.12.2022

The state’s hasty plan might obstruct wind farms’ development

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
The state’s hasty plan might obstruct wind farms’ development
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Wind energy park in Viru-Nigula, Lääne-Viru county.
Wind energy park in Viru-Nigula, Lääne-Viru county. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • The state has a radical plan for constructing new wind farms.
  • Estonia has little land for erecting wind turbines.
  • The government’s plans caused concern among wind energy developers.

Wind farm developers fear that the state's radical plan to speed up the introduction of wind energy may result in the opposite – slow down the construction of wind farms. The most serious point of contention is the state's desire to start looking for, researching and mapping plots of land on which to build wind farms. These are called priority development areas.

Since wind energy developers also search for and study suitable land themselves, it simply results in a competition between the developers and the state for the same plots of land. Secondly, it means duplication of effort, the same studies and the same activities. “We use the same maps and the same conditions as the state officials," Lauri Ulm, head of wind energy at Enefit Green, expresses his skepticism. In short, developers are already looking for land plots; if the state also starts looking, what extra value would it offer? Since the government office has set mid-2024 as the deadline for examining and finding suitable land for wind farms, how can we rule out the possibility of wasted effort which would finally reach the same places that the developers have already staked out?

This worries those who actually build wind farms, to say the least. “It seems to me that the focus tends to blur," admits Rene Tammist, manager of Utilitas Wind. “There is a danger or creating a parallel reality,” adds Priit Lepasepp from Sunly, a company which creates renewable energy developments.

"But what should we do then?” asks Estonia’s green policy coordinator Kristi Klaas in response to the developers' criticism. Klaas works in the government office in a position created by the government to lead the green revolution. In essence, this is the most important green policy position in Estonia. Klaas is familiar with the fears of the wind farm builders, and when you talk to her, you get the impression that she too perceives (probably because of the wind farm builders' feedback) certain areas of risk. “We must definitely avoid the risk that the existing developments slow down," she says.

Yet it is difficult to give up the so-called priority development areas which the state is looking for, because behind it is the requirement of the European Union's Repower Europe initiative. “We essentially have to find these lands,” Klaas admits. The developers argue that if Estonia has an obligation to designate some plots of land as “priority development areas” due to the EU directives, it could simply take the land plots which the developers are already developing or plan to develop, stick the appropriate label on it, and the problem would be solved.

However, this idea does not suit the government office. First of all, there is the issue of competition. Klaas hints that if the state finds the land plots and carries out the necessary research there, then it can later put the land up for auction. This means that new potential wind farm builders could be brought in. “The issue also concerns the strategic reserve; it would be good if the state itself had an understanding of the lands where to build," adds Klaas. In short, maybe the state officials will, after all, manage to find some plots of land which the developers have missed.

It is all because of a radical audit

Formally, the debate concerning the priority development areas was brought along by Estonia’s renewable energy acceleration audit, which was completed a few weeks ago. The contracting authority is the government; the author is a special working group formed at the government office. It is a very comprehensive and in Estonia’s terms a radical set of proposals to develop large quantities of wind energy-generating solutions as soon as possible.

According to the audit, Estonia has set the goal of building 1,000 MW worth of onshore wind farms by 2030, three times more than today. If we add the same capacity of offshore wind farms, it could meet the entire country’s nominal need for electricity. Nominal – this aspect must be pointed out – meaning that the audit does not take into account what happens when the wind does not blow, does not consider energy storage, network stabilization or other issues, but at least in terms of generation volumes, it would be a big step forward.

According to the most important goal of the audit, the state will look for and will find 500 square kilometers priority development areas for wind farms within the first half of 2024. The 500 square kilometers is based on the reckoning that this would be the area necessary for the construction of 1,000 MW wind farms. By the way, the Ministry of Economic Affairs thinks that it needs spare areas and should find as much as 1000 square kilometers of new lands.

The plan is pretty in theory but complicated in practice. The audit states that, taking into account the current practice (at least 1,000 meters between a wind generator and the nearest dwelling) and all other restrictions, only 82 square kilometers of suitable land could be found in Estonia. Suitable means in this case that there are no nature conservation, national defense or infrastructure restrictions. If at least 750 meters are left between the generator and the nearest dwelling – the state thinks that this could become a new practice – the area of ​​suitable plots will rise to 165 square kilometers. This still does not come close to the desired 500 square kilometers. In short, there is simply very little land in Estonia suitable for wind farms.

“There is simply no land,” says Lepasepp, a wind energy developer. “It was the biggest surprise to me that there is so little suitable land in Estonia,” says the green policy coordinator Klaas. In essence, this means that the developer (whether a private company or the Estonian state) must inevitably use the plots of land which are not suitable, i.e. subject to restrictions, which will result in a longer and more complicated process.

The other half of the audit of renewable energy acceleration (besides searching for plots) contains a whole number of ideas on how to significantly speed up the planning process. Currently, the planning of one wind farm takes 5-7 years, and the government office working group has set the goal of shortening it to one and a half years. This is an optimistic plan, the auditors admit, because it assumes that no one will ever dispute anything and that no errors would be made in the planning process.

The state really has a lot of ideas. For example, the audit recommends talking to the judges of the administrative courts in order to somehow accelerate the judicial processing of renewable energy plans. If one seeks for a malicious intent, this influencing of courts sounds actually ominous. Or take the suggestion that the environmental impact assessments should not be carried out by licensed professionals (the shortage of such specialists is one of the reasons why wind farm developments are being delayed). But what would the licensed experts think of this idea?

In some places, the plan to accelerate the renewable energy is becoming very detailed. As the construction of a large volume of wind farms also means cutting down large areas of forests, the audit even states how many new trees need to be planted to replace the forests and when and in which quantities tree seedlings should be ordered. The answer: order immediately.

However, the audit also contains a number of useful and constructive recommendations. The developers also agree that there are many good ideas. Rather, they fear that the good ideas may get lost among others. One developer is worried that officials love to make a lot of plans (“it could be called the law of conservation of red tape”), and take off quickly but in the end will prove unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rene Tammist also referred to a similar risk (“the focus tends to be lost”).

The green deal looks like centrally planned economy

When attempting to summarize the feedback from the wind energy developers to the state's plans, they will concentrate into two points. The search for priority development areas should be cancelled. And secondly, which is reiterated by Tammist and Ulm, the recommendations reducing the planning period should be picked out of the package of ideas: rule out the duplication of research, repeated environmental impact assessments, permit the use of the existing data, shorten the deadlines, reduce coordination and unnecessary involvement.

The green deal in Estonia and the whole Europe looks like centrally planned economy and government intervention. On the one hand, it is good that the Estonian government has now reacted. On the other hand, the first setbacks can be seen already. “Some local governments are already saying that as the state will handle the issue itself, there is no point in moving on at the local level,” Lepasepp notes. Here is the risk mentioned earlier: once the state gets involved, the local administrations can take it easy and the developments in progress can get obstructed.

And there is little time. The audit was completed a month ago. The government will discuss it tomorrow. Then there would be political choices and guidelines. A number of bills and law amendments would need to be written by February already. Then they will again be referred to the government and the parliament. And all this so that wind energy would meet a larger share of Estonia's electricity consumption by 2030.