A difficulty for developers of offshore wind farms may be the timing of the grid connection route, which may only be firmly decided once consent for the turbines is granted. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) accompanying a wind farm application requires consideration of all likely significant effects. In principle, this includes the grid connection, which raises the question of how it might be properly assessed. A recent planning decision for an offshore windfarm in England provides helpful guidance.
Triton Knoll wind farm off the English east coast was granted consent in July 2013 for 288 wind turbines with a 1.2GMW capacity. At the time of the application, the grid connection route had not been determined and would be subject to a separate application. This raised the issue of whether all likely significant effects of the development could be assessed, as required by the European EIA Directive. If the route of the grid connection was not known, how could these effects properly and lawfully be considered?
Legal challenges arising from inadequate EIA are commonplace. They are a source of significant delay to projects and present challenges for major renewables development in ensuring that that the EIA is adequate and robust. With little control over the detailed route of a grid connection, it may be difficult to reconcile the legal requirements of the EIA Directive with the realities of grid connection procedures in Northern Ireland.
In the Triton Knoll decision, the Secretary of State (SoS) acknowledged that the adequacy of the Environmental Statement (ES) had been raised by third parties. Natural England in particular had questioned whether the proposal was properly assessed in the absence of clarity over the grid connection.
The SoS noted that the EIA Directive requires an assessment that is “relevant to a given stage of the consent procedure and the specific characteristics of a particular project”. The English EIA Regulations allow for the information to be limited to that which can be “reasonably required” having regard “in particular to current knowledge”.
Development in England also benefits from the National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy Infrastructure which allows for the identification of a grid connection corridor within which environmental effects should be assessed. However, this could still fall foul of European law if the assessment was inadequate.
The SoS agreed that the ES had provided adequate assessment of indirect, secondary and cumulative effects of the grid connection “to the extent necessary for this offshore proposal”. The SoS also noted that “it was not necessary or indeed possible to submit detailed information” on the grid connection “or to assess this in the supporting ES” as it would be the subject of a subsequent approval and assessment.
This decision indicates that provided a route corridor is identified and considered broadly within the ES in terms of indirect, cumulative and secondary effects, it may not be necessary to assess a separately consented grid connection in the same detail as the main development site. Interestingly, the turbine locations themselves were not specified in detail, and rather the ‘Rochdale Envelope’ approach was used, which assesses the ‘worst case’ impact whilst allowing flexibility in the final detailed design.
There are some important caveats. The decision was based on there being a separate and detailed EIA for the grid connection application which would also assess cumulative effects with the wind farm. The decision, which to date has not been challenged in the courts, also benefited from specific planning policy on grid connection corridors. Nevertheless, this decision suggests there is potential for important offshore energy infrastructure development to be properly assessed without a detailed grid connection route. This may be critical for future offshore renewables development here in Northern Ireland.