Europe has a massive challenge scaling up renewables to meet net zero. To achieve the EU’s target of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030 versus 1990, the European Commission has indicated that the overall energy mix must contain at least 40% renewables. The Commission’s impact assessment suggests this means around 68% of Europe’s electricity mix must be renewable by 2030.

WindEurope has told policymakers these targets require 433–452GW of EU wind power. GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, calculates there was 189GW of wind power installed at the end of 2021. A massive scale-up is therefore required, and while WindEurope expects 17.6GW of capacity to be installed over each of the next five years, this figure must nearly double to 32GW to put the EU on track for its 55% emissions target.

German wind farm
A wind farm near a village in Brandenburg, Germany. (Photo by Mike Mareen via Shutterstock)

So what needs to change? The political will is largely there, financing is available, and businesses are queuing up to offer their products and services. Instead, it is now widely accepted that the key blockage to new wind is permitting.

Permitting rules in many countries are complex, with exclusion zones or spatial planning constraints. Cash-strapped authorities lack resources to process applications, and procedures are slow, with multiple authorities at regional and national level causing delays. All this means projects can be indefinitely put on hold or cancelled – and this risk, plus the tens of millions of euros spent on permitting, is putting off investors.

The rules and procedures are too complex,” says WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson. “It will be nice to have a higher renewables target, but it will be academic if we don’t tackle permitting.”

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Data from GlobalData reveals just how big the EU’s permitting backlog currently is. Across the trading bloc, there is four times more capacity in permitting than under construction. This analysis excludes recently announced projects that have yet to make any significant progress.

Spain – the host of WindEurope’s 2022 annual conference in Bilbao – has nine times more capacity in permitting than under construction, and Poland and Germany both have eight times more.

GlobalData analysts say the typical time between the start of permitting and projects coming online is at least five years in countries like France and Italy. In one German example, permitting was so slow that by the time the wind farm was given the green light, the selected turbine model was obsolete.

Permitting is not a uniquely European challenge. The IEA’s most recent renewable energy outlook cited it as a problem in countries including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. However, GlobalData shows that a greater share (81%) of the EU’s wind pipeline is stuck in permitting than in the US (79%), China (74%) and India (64%).

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The good news is that authorities are starting to recognise that permitting is a serious problem. The European Commission says it is “doing everything we can” to speed up renewables permitting, while the EU renewable energy directive – at least in theory – already caps permitting procedures at two years.

New national policies like Germany’s designation of 2% of its landmass for onshore wind should help speed up permitting. Meanwhile, at a press conference in March 2022, Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans emphasised that Europe will need to speed up permitting if it wants to more rapidly expand domestic renewables to replace natural gas imports from Russia. The Commission is preparing new guidance to speed up renewable energy permitting for May.