Navigating the Complexities of the Consenting Process

Michael Starling, principal consultant at BMT Renewables, a subsidiary of BMT Group, explains Offshore Renewable Energy Installations (OREIs).

Offshore Renewable Energy Installations (OREIs) are one of the biggest changes to sea area use since the oil and gas boom of the 70s and 80s.

OREIs can cover large areas and have wide ranging impacts on navigation and the use of the sea during survey, construction operation and eventual commissioning.

Earlier this month the Crown Estate announced the names of the successful bidders for the world's first commercial wave and tidal leasing round, for ten sites in Scotland's Pentland Firth and Orkney waters.

This follows hot on the heels of the Round 3 offshore wind farm awards where nine developers received leases in January of this year.

These agreements allow the successful parties to enter in to the process of developing their zones, the next stage of which is to secure all the necessary statutory consents.

The planning issues associated with major energy infrastructure projects are well documented with the Sizewell 'B' public inquiry in the 1980s taking over three years and receiving over 16 million words of evidence.

With the issues of the past in mind and the pressing need for a step change in the UK's construction of power generation plant, the UK Government created the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) as part of the Planning Act 2008.

The IPC is the independent body that decides applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects. IPC Commissioners make these decisions within the framework of National Policy Statements, also weighing the national benefit of proposals against the local impact.

In practical terms, this means that as of March 1 2010, IPC took over responsibility from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) for the consenting process relating to all new offshore wind farm applications with a capacity greater than 100Megawatts.

Prior to a developer starting any physical work on any part of an OREI, consent must be given by the relevant body.

For most Round Three wind farms this will be the IPC however smaller wind farms and most wave or tidal projects below the 100 Megawatt threshold will still be handled by DECC for the foreseeable future.

Consent must be given for each phase of the project including any survey activity, construction, operation and finally decommissioning.

Each phase is broken down further with consents required for all the offshore elements of a wind farm (the turbines, offshore transformers and export cable route); consent to cross the shoreline, (principally the export cable route) and consents for the onshore items (export cable route and the grid connection infrastructure including substations).

There is also a requirement for consents to be granted for any developments at ports to create extra lay-down areas or docking facilities required during construction or for ongoing maintenance.

While consent to establish a meteorological mast to gather wind speed data, or to drill boreholes to confirm geotechnical conditions may be granted with the minimum of supporting documentation, consents for subsequent stages of the development require in-depth studies to demonstrate the suitability of the project and how it will impact on the environment and on stakeholders.

One of the major parts of the approval process is the environmental consent where developers have to produce a comprehensive environmental statement based on an environmental impact assessment.

This includes three sub-sets, the first of which covers the physical and chemical environment which is things like sediment, noise, contamination, and electrometric fields.

Second is the biological environment which includes the seabed benthos, inter-tidal areas, land flora and fauna, fish & shellfish, birds and marine mammals. One of the issues with Round Three is that the development zones are further offshore so they are moving away from near-shore ecology to deep-water ecology which is closer to the environmental impact assessments that are carried out regularly by BMT for the offshore oil and gas industry.

The third sub-set is the human environment which consists of but is not limited to navigation, fisheries, aviation and cultural heritage.

The development of wind farms around the UK's coastline is already beginning to complicate the approvals process for future schemes. When consent for Round One wind farms was granted it was possible to view the navigation and environmental impacts for each scheme in isolation as they were small discrete projects.

However with the advent of round two, wind farms were built in close proximity to other wind farms so the environmental impact of a new scheme had to be viewed in the context of the existing wind farms around it. Granting consent to one wind farm might jeopardise the ability the secure consent for another.

Cumulative and combination effects are beginning to dominate when Round Three and the planned offshore wind farms within Scottish territorial waters are added to the mix and this issue will become even more prevalent as further wind farms are planned and developed.

The role of navigational assessment is also changing from a navigation risk focussed exercise to one which also addresses the effects on routing and access to ports.

As part of its environmental and navigational assessment work for wind farms and tidal energy schemes in the UK and Pacific Rim, BMT has identified how wind farms can act as physical barriers to shipping and if longer ship routings are required to ensure safe navigation there will be knock on effects on shipping costs and access to ports.

Once a developer has produced the environmental statement, then whichever body is giving consent will use the statement in conjunction with the results of stakeholder consultation and other available information to make their decision.

A key issue in achieving consent is demonstrating that appropriate mitigations are in place for the impact of the development to be tolerable to the regulator and stakeholders.

Despite its apparent vastness, the marine environment is full of people either making a living or enjoying the amenities provided by the sea, so the identification of all the issues and all the stakeholders is very important in satisfying the consenting authority.

Stakeholders include statutory consultees such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, strategic stakeholders such as National Fisherman's organisations and the Royal Yachting Association and community stakeholders such as Residents Associations.

The developer's aim is to secure a statement of no objection from all the statutory consultees and to satisfy all stakeholders.

However satisfying all stakeholders fully will never be possible and full and open liaison, discussion and negotiation to identify solutions that are acceptable to all parties is very important.

Bringing stakeholders onboard as early in the process as possible in order to minimise the risk of alienation and the disruption is key to achieving the desired outcome.

The consenting process may appear over-complicated but as with any procedurally based exercise, understanding what is required at each stage and delivering to that requirement is the route to success.

By partnering with a team which has the right expertise and experience in breadth and depth to support the developer through this stage will ensure that a complex requirement does not become unnecessarily onerous.

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