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Solar Rollout Rouses Resistance in Europe’s Countryside

Wall Street Journal|Matthew Dalton and Eliza Collins|October 9, 2022
GermanyEuropeFranceItalyPortugalSpainImpact on LandscapeImpact on PeopleZoning/Planning

Putting solar-panels on roofs is the low-hanging fruit in that plan. But there aren’t enough roofs in Europe to hit the bloc’s targets. Officials and executives say many more solar parks on the ground are needed. The EU has proposed legislation that aims to accelerate permitting for all kinds of renewable energy projects, part of a sweeping effort to end Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.


PARIS—Europe’s plans for a massive expansion of solar power are hitting an obstacle on the ground: regulations that preserve green space on the densely-populated continent and aim to protect the heritage of the countryside.
 
In France, thick rulebooks restrict where solar farms can be built, resulting in years of delay before construction can begin. Local officials in Spain are trying to slow the spread of solar farms that they fear could scar the countryside. In Italy, developers must clear layers of bureaucracy and avoid ancient ruins to build solar farms in rural areas.
 
The European Union is relying heavily on solar power to hit its renewable energy targets and blunt the impact of Russia’s natural-gas cutoff. The EU is aiming to get 45% of the bloc’s energy supplies from renewable sources by 2030. The goal would more than triple its solar-power capacity by then, making it the continent’s biggest source of electricity. Officials have been optimistic of reaching their goal in part because solar panels are less obtrusive than towering wind turbines, in theory rousing less opposition from ... more [truncated due to possible copyright]
     
PARIS—Europe’s plans for a massive expansion of solar power are hitting an obstacle on the ground: regulations that preserve green space on the densely-populated continent and aim to protect the heritage of the countryside.
 
In France, thick rulebooks restrict where solar farms can be built, resulting in years of delay before construction can begin. Local officials in Spain are trying to slow the spread of solar farms that they fear could scar the countryside. In Italy, developers must clear layers of bureaucracy and avoid ancient ruins to build solar farms in rural areas.
 
The European Union is relying heavily on solar power to hit its renewable energy targets and blunt the impact of Russia’s natural-gas cutoff. The EU is aiming to get 45% of the bloc’s energy supplies from renewable sources by 2030. The goal would more than triple its solar-power capacity by then, making it the continent’s biggest source of electricity. Officials have been optimistic of reaching their goal in part because solar panels are less obtrusive than towering wind turbines, in theory rousing less opposition from the public.
 
Putting solar-panels on roofs is the low-hanging fruit in that plan. But there aren’t enough roofs in Europe to hit the bloc’s targets. Officials and executives say many more solar parks on the ground are needed. The EU has proposed legislation that aims to accelerate permitting for all kinds of renewable energy projects, part of a sweeping effort to end Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
 
France, the EU’s largest country by territory, is a weak link in the bloc’s plan. French regulations have pushed solar development to previously industrialized land—instead of green space—allowing only those projects to sell power at a premium. That has sent developers hunting for a relatively limited number of factories, abandoned mines and other previously used land, sending the values of such properties soaring.
 
“The volumes of renewable energy are limited by this land,” said Xavier Barbaro, chief executive of Neoen, one of France’s largest solar-power developers. “Renewables in France won’t expand unless the rules are loosened on farms and forests.”
 
A climate law drafted by the government of President Emmanuel Macron aims to achieve net-zero loss of green space by 2050, and imposes new requirements on local authorities to limit development on such land. The law contains an exemption for solar farms, but developers must show that the project won’t damage the soil or prevent it from being used for agricultural purposes. ‘Renewables in France won’t expand unless the rules are loosened on farms and forests,’ said Xavier Barbaro, chief executive of Neoen, a French solar-power developer.
 
Mr. Macron said last month that France needed to vastly expand its deployment of solar panels and called for more projects that would integrate panels into farmland.
 
“We know it’s feasible,” he said, adding: “We must go much faster.”
 
In Spain, public opposition is growing to the large number of solar farms under development. Mayors in Andalusia are protesting decisions by the national government to allow hundreds of solar farms to be built in a region renowned for its cultural sites, rolling countryside and agricultural products. In some cases, olive trees have been uprooted to make room for solar panels.
 
“We consider it necessary to establish areas of exclusion for the installation of large-scale renewable projects,” the mayors wrote in a statement last week to the Andalusian parliament. “A planned and rational process is urgently needed.”
 
Slow-moving bureaucracy is a challenge across the continent. Developers say the regional agencies that review solar park proposals are often understaffed. Neoen says that 40% of its French projects in the pipeline have been awaiting regulatory decisions from local authorities for more than two years.
 
In Italy, a project must be first approved by the national authority and then goes for regional approval where bids can easily be rejected, said Paolo Rocco Viscontini, the president of Italia Solare, a solar  association. Mr. Rocco Viscontini said one major reason projects get stopped is because of proximity to ancient ruins.
 
“If they want to create problems it’s easy to create problems in Italy with all the archaeological and cultural constraints,” he said.
 
Mr. Rocco Viscontini said on top of regional concerns, the approval process at the national level is taking too long.
 
Italian Environment Minister Roberto Cingolani said a new law passed by his government has shortened the average permitting time for renewable projects from more than three years to 300 days. Solar projects seeking connection to the grid have soared, he said.
 
“This is not enough,” Mr. Cingolani said. “We are trying to accelerate, but the bottleneck is huge.”
 
Projects are still held up by disagreements between the environment ministry and the culture ministry, which reviews the impact of solar parks on Italy’s storied landscape, he said. Italy’s powerful regional governments sometimes oppose projects that take up farmland but send electricity to demand centers around Italy’s cities.
 
“You cannot have a brute force approach,” Mr. Cingolani said. “You have to go talk to the people.”
 
Germany is Europe’s leader in solar power, which generated around 9% of the country’s electricity last year. In August, 17% of the country’s electricity was generated by solar, behind only coal as the leading source of electricity. But roughly 70% of land identified as a possibility for construction is left undeveloped because of resistance from municipal authorities or poor grid connections, said Luisa Müller, a spokeswoman for solar company Belectric, which develops projects in Germany.
 
“Many of the challenges our project development faces in finding land are related to reservations towards solar power, bureaucracy or the grid,” she said. Sometimes municipalities don’t want the solar farms because of how they look, said Ms. Müller. Still, Ms. Müller said the company had constructed more than 60 plants in regions throughout Germany.
 
A representative from the German Solar Association said every municipality in Germany had solar plants but some had extensive experience with them, such as the city of Freiburg.
 
In Portugal, the average time for a solar project to be approved is three years, said Pedro Amaral Jorge, who leads APREN, an association of most of the country’s renewable energy companies. The project can get snagged at any level including with the national government or in a local dispute over land use.
 
Licensing and permitting needs to be simplified “because the targets that you have to achieve in 2030 are tremendous,” said Mr. Amaral Jorge.
 
“While our licensing model can be improved, we believe it is one of the best in Europe,” a representative for the minister of environment and climate action in Portugal said via email. The representative said the government had put in place several measures to simplify licensing.

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Source:https://www.wsj.com/articles/…

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