Aardvark senior consultant Jack Spurway considers planning implications of rapidly changing technology in the renewable energy sector during the construction phase of a project.
It is a common occurrence for renewable and low carbon energy schemes that in the time it takes between the initial submission of a planning application, the determination of said planning application and the eventual construction of the scheme, that significant technology advances and changes to regulatory environments occur which will have an influence on site design and overall project viability.
Renewable and low carbon technologies are enjoying record deployment levels, as a result we are seeing rapid improvements in technology as greater efficiencies are achieved and as purchase costs decrease. One prime example of this is the capacity of individual solar PV panels, the first large scale PV application that Aardvark worked on way back in 2011 utilised PV panels with an individual capacity of 185W, fast forward to 2018 and we are now seeing panels with the same surface area deliver 300-350W of capacity.
The regulatory environment which controls the deployment of renewable and low carbon technologies is also subject to rapid changes. One example is the recent well published changes to the RHII subsidy payments which provide payments for heat generated through, in particular anaerobic digestion (AD). These changes have brought about a requirement that at least 50% of feedstock used in AD must be classed as a waste material. This marks a step change as often planning is submitted and secured on an ?on farm? basis utilising materials that are not officially classed as waste. A change in feedstock mix to include waste material can entirely change the principle of an AD plant moving it from an ?on farm? renewable project to a waste treatment facility, these scenarios are obviously very different from a planning point of view.
These factors combine to mean that developers of low carbon technologies often face a catch twenty two situation when deciding which final project design to enter into planning with. The planning system is fairly rigid with regard to the plans, drawings and assessments required in order to validate a planning application and amending plans or assessments to match technology changes or changing regulatory environment can often jeopardise the determination process. This is especially relevant where projects are slightly contentious and generate public interest, projects of this nature are often subject to greater scrutiny and design changes can often be wrongly perceived as attempts to trick the planning system. Increasingly we are also seeing that local authorities determine that changes to site design actually require the submission of an entirely new planning application, this carries associated increases in costs and ultimately delays construction of the scheme. This can often leave developers in a situation where significant investment has been ploughed into a development, however for economic reasons the project is now unviable.
Naturally this means that developers often proceed through the planning system with a site design and principle which they know full well will need amending when construction finally takes place. This is all well and good as the planning system in the UK is flexible and there are a number of options available to secure amendments and variations.
Aardvark have increasingly been employed to help developers amend and vary planning consents to match the ?as built? schemes. Ideally we would strongly recommend that any variation or amendments required should be secured before construction begins onsite and before any pre-commencement conditions are discharged. However it is not uncommon for these changes to be required after the schemes have been constructed and brought into operation, this carries its own risk however we have found that if managed properly, retrospective amendments and variations are generally achievable as long as the changes are not too severe. An example of this is given below;
- On behalf of a retained client, Aardvark has secured a non-material amendment to the planning consent for an operational solar farm in the north of England. This amendment was required, as during the course of construction onsite it became clear that the plans previously approved contained references to technology which has since become outdated. This amendment means that the site is now fully compliant with planning and the owner can now consider selling the scheme or look to re-finance it without any risk of future planning enforcement action.
If you are planning a development or own/ managed any operational renewable or low carbon assets in the UK how can Aardvark help you?
- Aardvark employ a team of consultants with years of experience in the renewable and low carbon sector who are on hand to advise you of the most appropriate site design;
- Aardvark employ a team of planning consultants experienced in all levels of planning who are on hand to prepare and submit new planning application and also to seek amendments or variations to optimise operating schemes; and
- Aardvark provide a cost effective due diligence services which aims to pick out any inconsistencies between consented and ?as built? schemes.
Local planning authorities in the UK are under increasing budgetary pressure and as such it is now the case that developers cannot simply assume that because the council have never been in touch about a development that it is fully compliant with planning. Often inconsistencies between planning and the built scheme are only noticed when the asset is due to be sold and the relevant due diligence teams uncover the differences, this can often lead to a protracted sale process and can even drive down the price of assets, Aardvark strongly recommend that where changes to site design are required or have occurred without the proper planning in place, that steps are taken as soon as practical to ensure full planning compliance.