Plus: Clean(er) beef
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APRIL 20, 2022

Greetings from New York City. Anca and I met in person for the first time—it was glorious!

Anca anchors this week’s newsletter with a story on permitting and a Data Dive on wind energy growth.

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Slow approval of renewables projects puts climate goals at risk

In 2012, a Danish renewable energy developer applied for a permit to build an offshore wind farm in the country’s southern waters that could power 350,000 homes.

In 2020, after navigating a complex application process, the company, European Energy A/S, finally won approval from regulatory authorities to move forward—only to find out in the same meeting that another government branch was planning to declare the selected area a nature-protected zone.

“You go into a meeting, and you bring the champagne bottle to celebrate after eight years of developing the project and all of a sudden they pull this white rabbit,” said Mathias Aarup Berg, senior regulatory affairs manager at European Energy. “It came as lightning from a blue sky. We had heard nothing about this.”

This Danish’s company’s experience reflects the challenge of permitting facing clean energy developers all over the world. What were once seen as procedural issues are now inadvertently sabotaging the climate goals of the European Union, the United States and more.

Permitting delays are separate from but related to another hurdle in the race to net zero: growing public opposition to new clean energy projects. Last year, Cipher scrutinized a proposed power line in Maine that failed due to local objections.

In the EU, a mix of lack of staff, red tape, uncoordinated internal decision-making and growing biodiversity concerns are among the main obstacles leading to permitting delays. The urgency to scale up renewables is even more palpable now due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the bloc keen to reduce its dependence on energy imports.

“I don’t want to overdramatize, but permitting is key for securing a stable energy supply,” Morten Petersen, a Danish MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group and vice chair of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee, told Cipher. “It’s becoming a security policy, which is not something any of us thought of.”

A previously revised renewables law tried to tackle the issue of permitting bottlenecks a few years ago, including by streamlining the process and setting up deadlines in some cases. Yet many EU countries missed a June 2021 deadline for bringing these changes into national law.

This shows the wider disconnect between decisions made in Brussels, the EU capital, and action on the ground around the Continent. Recognizing the problem, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is set to release next month guidelines for EU countries to help streamline permitting procedures.

The EU wants to get 40% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 (compared to 22% today). There’s talk of bumping up the target even higher in light of the war.

But the EU is not building enough wind energy to reach its targets largely due to permitting delays, Wind Europe, the European wind lobby group, said in February. (This is a global problem; see our Data Dive below). The EU has four times more wind capacity stalled in the permitting phase than under construction, according to an analysis by Global Data and the Energy Monitor.

“The permitting is so long that you never know when the project will start being built, and you don’t know when turbines will be delivered out of the factories,” said Pauline Fournols, adviser on energy and environment at Wind Europe. “It has an economic impact.”

Permitting procedures for new onshore wind projects can take anywhere between two and seven years, and between less than one year and over four years for solar projects, Commission officials said in a recent webinar.

A report last month from energy consulting firm eclareon has found that no EU country has effective policies in place that would ensure the necessary deployment of wind and solar farms. The most serious problems are linked to bureaucracy, the report says, “especially the high complexity, long duration and low transparency of administrative procedures.”

As in the Danish case above, it’s common for one government branch to be unaware of the decisions made by another.

“It’s a real issue, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” Petersen said.

Veerle Dossche, energy policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, a coalition of NGOs, said that while officials need to ease up permitting procedures, a faster deployment of green energy “needs to be managed with respect for biodiversity and ensure citizens and communities are fully involved in decision-making processes and benefit from the energy transition.”

To fully tap into local renewable energy potential, Dossche said officials need to identify sufficient local and regional priority areas for wind and solar farms that are least damaging to the environment. This kind of planning would also create clarity for the larger public, she added.

The German government, which wants to get all of its electricity from renewable power by 2035, presented earlier this month a set of significant energy policy reforms, which are also meant to overhaul permitting processes. The reforms include designating renewables as projects of “overriding public interest,” meaning they’ll be given priority in the event of legal conflicts with other regulations.

Berg’s company in Denmark is aiming for a similar approach for its offshore wind project. The company is seeking potential wiggle room to build the project in the protected area based on public interest while also protecting wildlife. The government signaled support to providing an exception to see the wind farm through.

Lunchtime Reads and Hot Takes
Is There Really Such a Thing as Low-Carbon Beef?WIRED
Amy’s take: This raises an interesting question about to what degree emitting products should be made cleaner (like this) and/or whether we should move away from them altogether. It’s probably going to be a bit of both. I also wonder how they arrived at the 10% mark. It should be lower-carbon beef, emphasis on the “er.”

The Clean-Power Megaproject Held Hostage by a Ranch and a BirdBloomberg (paywall)
Amy’s take: Ugh. Ranch owners who fought a power line for years are now selling the part they fought over. Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, also has an eye-popping quote about the concerns of the ranch owners.

UK government threatened with legal action over offshore wind farmsFinancial Times (paywall)
Anca’s take: This is part of the wider challenge I outline in the main article above, where growing public opposition to renewables projects risks stalling green energy uptakes. The British case underscores once more how important it is to have communities on board with development plans.

A Heat Pump Might Be Right for Your Home. Here’s Everything to Know. — Wirecutter by The New York Times
Amy’s take: This read more like a story than a typical Wirecutter review I’m accustomed to reading about for, say, vacuum cleaners and sheets (two things I’ve bought after reading Wirecutter). I was a bit disappointed. It glossed over the significantly higher cost for heat pumps and the ways to lower that. The higher upfront cost is a huge deterrent (for this tech and any tech). It also doesn’t mention options for the roughly one-third of Americans renting their homes.

Denmark to Hike Gas Output to Help Europe Wean Off Russia SupplyBloomberg (paywall)
Anca’s take: The other big headline here is that the Danes will also quadruple solar and wind energy by 2030 and stick with the plan to end fossil fuel production by 2050. The decision to hike gas output for now reflects the cautious, short-term vs. long-term balance countries must strike in dealing with the energy security crisis and Russia.

Balkans turns to coal as energy crisis trumps climate commitments Reuters
Anca’s take: The short- vs. long-term balance I mentioned above seems way more skewed in this case, with countries in the region planning to open new coal mines, since the fossil fuel is now cheaper than everything else. It also shows the wealth disparity across Europe, since not all countries can plunge ahead as easily with green investments.

Too many ways to help: How to promote climate change mitigation behaviorsJournal of Environmental Psychology
Amy’s take: Aw, the paradox of choice comes for climate action. Supporting politicians who support climate action is usually the best single thing one can do but learning about how to lower your carbon footprint can help you learn about the systemic factors holding us back, which could make you more impassioned about supporting certain politicians.

More reading:
  • New York Clears $4.5 Billion Plan to Bring Hydropower to Big Apple — Bloomberg (paywall)
  • New lithium technology can help the world go green if it works Reuters
  • Battle over carbon capture as tool to fight climate change AP News
  • War in Ukraine generates interest in nuclear energy, despite danger The Washington Post
World risks being two-thirds short on wind energy

The world needs to scale up annual wind energy installations by a factor of four this decade to meet mid-century climate goals, according to a report released earlier this month by the Global Wind Energy Council, a global trade group representing the industry.

At current installation rates, countries will have less than two-thirds of the wind energy capacity needed by 2030 to set them on a net-zero emissions path by 2050, the group forecast in its latest yearly report.

Countries need to reach a cumulative wind capacity of 3,101 gigawatts to meet net-zero emissions by 2050 scenarios, substantially higher than the current capacity of 837 GW.

The findings reflect the wider challenges the world faces as it tries to redesign the energy system, including building up more grid infrastructure, in the race to fight climate change.

“Current policy and market frameworks are creating a widening gap between ambition and reality,” it states.

Three times more offshore wind was installed in 2021 compared to 2020, according to the report, but total new global wind installations (onshore and offshore) for 2020 and 2021 were almost equal, with about 95 GW and 94 GW respectively.

The world’s top five markets in 2021 for new installations were China, the United States, Brazil, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. These five markets combined made up 75.1% of global installations last year, according to the report.

China made up 80% of offshore wind capacity added worldwide in 2021, bringing its cumulative offshore wind installations to 27.7 GW. “This is an astounding level of growth, as it took three decades for Europe to bring its total offshore wind capacity to a similar level,” the report states.
Sunny Dutch Days
Anca snapped this photo during a recent trip to the Netherlands. It shows solar panels on the roof of a conference venue in the Hague, with the city center in the background. The biggest solar power plant in the Hague provides electricity to the city's public transportation company.

Each week, we feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to

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