Renewables industry hails end to planning red tape

Experts predict extension of permitted development rights will remove one of the main barriers to adoption for onsite renewables

The government's plans to exempt a large number of small-scale renewable energy technologies from planning permission should remove one of the major costs related to installation of onsite renewables and provide a boost to the industry, according to industry experts.

Under proposals released earlier this week for consultation, the government is planning to extend the so-called "permitted development rights" that already allow homeowners to install solar panels without planning permission to cover air source heat pumps and small-scale wind turbines.

Businesses would enjoy an even wider relaxation of planning rules with solar panels, ground and water source heat pumps, flues for biomass and combined heat and power systems, and larger wind turbines that are up to 15m tall all granted permitted development rights for the first time. Meanwhile, agricultural and forestry sites would be able to install anaerobic digestion systems, biomass technologies and small-scale hydroelectric turbines without necessarily applying for planning permission.

Housing minister John Healey said the aim of the proposed reforms was to ensure those individuals and businesses that want to install renewable energy systems "get a helping hand, not a stop sign". "Our planning rules need to catch up with changing technologies and allow people to take the small measures that make big differences," he said. "Not only could this save up to hundreds of pounds in fuel bills, it will also help the environment."

The government added that all new installations would still be subject to safeguards governing noise and environmental impacts, but industry insiders welcomed the proposed changes, arguing they would remove much of the red tape that has discouraged businesses in particular from investing in onsite renewables.

"A number of issues tend to drive up costs for onsite renewables, and planning is one of the main ones," said Leonnie Greene of the Renewable Energy Association. "Getting planning permission is still a huge issue for small-scale installations - the new Infrastructure Planning Commission only covers projects with more than 50MW capacity, so most projects still face planning challenges. Anything to lower those barriers would be helpful."

The changes are unlikely to lead to an immediate increase in demand for onsite renewable energy technologies, according to Steve Crosher, commercial director at wind turbine manufacture Quiet Revolution, but he argued that they form part of wider reforms that mean the sector should see demand increase during 2010.

"The interest is there for onsite renewables, but there are time and cost barriers," he said. "The proposed planning changes are one important stepping stone that will make onsite renewables more attractive, and when taken alongside the introduction of the feed-in tariff next year and increased pressure on firms to cut carbon emissions, the outlook is encouraging."

Crosher also suggested that the changes could enjoy significant public support once they are brought into force, arguing that concerns over noise from small-scale wind turbines are increasingly outdated. "It depends on the model, but most of the latest turbines are far quieter than people think," he explained. "You really can't hear them over the wind, so when the wind speed increases and they get a bit louder, you still can't hear them over the wind itself."

However, Seb Berry of the UK PV Manufacturers Association said that while the changes were welcome, they had taken far too long to be implemented and had effectively dampened demand for onsite renewables in recent years.

"This three-month consultation on non-domestic permitted development rights was expected as long ago as 2008, so today's announcement is very welcome but it's long overdue," he said. "The lengthy delay in getting this consultation out has added unnecessary costs and delay to hundreds of solar PV and other onsite renewable energy projects on non-domestic buildings over the past 12 months, bringing with it needless hassle and expense for customers."

He also raised fears that the government was now faced with a very tight deadline to get the planning changes finalised before its Clean Energy Cashback feed-in tariff scheme comes into effect next April, warning that the failure to remove planning barriers before then could stifle any initial customer enthusiasm.

The changes could also inadvertently provide a boost to the solar industry's campaign for the government to boost the proposed tariffs that will be available to energy generators through the Clean Energy Cashback scheme.

"Solar's permitted development rights is one of DECC's two explanations for the uniquely low ROI levels proposed for PV," observed Berry. "This only ever applied to domestic PV, of course. Now that Department of Communities and Local Government ministers are acting to ensure a level playing field of permitted development rights for all onsite renewable energy technologies - both domestic and non-domestic - from 2010, we expect the proposed PV tariffs to be adjusted upwards to reflect that planning level playing field."

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