Consultation till 29 November 2021

New policies, business model consultations and strategies are being issued by the UK government at great speed as it doubles down on its commitment to deliver a net zero carbon economy by 2050, and demonstrates its global leadership in cutting greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the COP26 Conference hosted in Glasgow this November.

Against that background, the 2011 suite of energy National Policy Statements (NPS), which guide the determination of development consent applications for energy related nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) in England and Wales, have for a long-time been ripe for review. That review has now occurred, with new draft statements published by BEIS on 7 September 2021 at the start of a public consultation process due to run to 29 November 2021.

The UK government has set itself a high bar for the new energy NPS. It states they shall be, "transformational in enabling England and Wales to transition to a low carbon economy". They are likely to, "contribute positively towards improving the vitality and competitiveness of the UK energy market by providing greater clarity for developers", and set out planning policies, "which both respect the principle of sustainable development, and can facilitate for the foreseeable future, the consenting of energy infrastructure on the scale and of the kinds necessary to help maintain safe, secure, affordable and low carbon supplies of energy".

In short, the UK government places great weight on the success of the new NPS to deliver a sustainable policy framework for consenting new energy projects at a time when energy demand is expected to double by 2050, leading to a possible fourfold increase in new low carbon energy generation.

We'll be feeding into the consultation process, but here are our early overarching observations on the draft suite of NPS:

1. URGENT

The delivery of all the generating technologies referenced in EN-1 remains "urgent".  Whilst that adjective was similarly used to describe the need for new generating capacity in 2011, it is given added prominence in the new iteration of EN-1, and its reach expanded to encompass a broader range of energy infrastructure (though taken away from coal and large scale oil-fired electricity generation), including energy networks, and storage and interconnection infrastructure.  This infrastructure is described as urgent to provide security of supply, and to ensure an affordable, reliable energy system which is net zero consistent.  As in 2011, the government again emphasises that it is not setting limits or targets on any new electricity infrastructure that can be consented in accordance with the NPS, leaving it to industry and not the planning system to compare the costs of individual developments and technology types, and assess what it deems to be viable. 

2. FUTURE PROOFING

The UK government recognises the energy market is fast moving, and the substantial weight to be applied to the urgency of the identified need for new energy infrastructure delivery is therefore now extended to new novel technologies, and combinations of technologies, which may emerge during the lifetime of the suite of NPS.  The UK government does not want to find itself in the same policy vacuum which has for a number of years subsisted in relation to green and blue hydrogen, utility scale solar generation, and carbon capture and storage.  The added flexibility means the NPS can support new and developing forms of energy infrastructure, including that which may be directed into the NSIP regime under section 35 Planning Act 2008. This approach will be welcomed by developers and funders.

3. HYDROGEN

Hydrogen only got a single passing reference in the 2011 NPS.  In 2021, both green and blue hydrogen with CCS take their place in the energy mix referenced in the NPS based on an up to date analysis and an understanding of known infrastructure and technologies.  This follows on from the publication of the UK government's Hydrogen Strategy last month which targeted 5GW of low carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030. Whilst the government notes both green and blue hydrogen remain "under development" and are "yet to be fully proven" at scale, the government considers there to be an urgent need for all types of low carbon hydrogen infrastructure to allow hydrogen to play its role in the transition to net zero. That extends to new hydrogen pipelines and underground storage for hydrogen.

4. RENEWABLES

Solar Photovoltaic Generation.  In 2011 EN-3 did not contain any substantive policy in relation to solar generation.  That vacuum has now been filled, acknowledging that large-scale solar is now viable subsidy-free and at little to no extra cost to the consumer.  Draft policy is now provided in relation to site selection, technical considerations and in relation to the robust assessment of a range of likely significant impacts from such development. 

Offshore Wind and Tidal Stream:  An extremely strong case for offshore wind is presented, reiterating the target to have 40GW of offshore wind capacity – including 1GW floating wind – by 2030. The draft NPS refers to the need for a co-ordinated approach to transmission from multiple offshore wind farms to onshore networks, and the important role of multi-purpose interconnectors.  The draft NPS also references the likely prospect of Tidal Stream projects above 100MW, close to the coastline, coming forward for planning consent within the next 5-6 years. The need to achieve coexistence between competing users and uses of the seabed is noted, with developers encouraged to work together to realise the delivery of different technologies required to achieve decarbonisation.

Pumped Hydro Schemes: specific reference is now made to PHS rather than to hydroelectric power generation.  Whilst no development consent applications for hydroelectric power generation NSIPs are expected, if they are the PHS policy may be relevant. Draft policy  acknowledges that the storage capability of PHS is valuable and useful to the electricity grid as it helps to correct imbalances in electricity supply and demand.

Biomass and Waste: as in 2011, the role played by the combustion of biomass and energy from waste plays in meeting the UK's energy needs is underscored.  All biomass generating stations will have to be Carbon Capture Ready (CCR) and/or have Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology applied – not just large scale.

5. NATURAL GAS ELECTRICITY GENERATION

The government notes that natural gas still has an important and on-going role to play in the transition to net zero by addressing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases associated with its usage through CCR and CCS.  Whilst there is an expectation that combustion power plants shall be replaced by low-carbon options by 2050, the government nonetheless acknowledges the critical role they play in providing dispatchable peaking capacity, in the short term, whilst low carbon alternatives come forward over time.

6. CCS

The NPS states that new carbon capture and storage infrastructure will be needed to ensure the transition to a net zero economy, and that there are no realistic alternatives to new CCS infrastructure for delivering net zero by 2050.  CCS's importance to enabling domestic production of low carbon hydrogen from natural gas ('blue' hydrogen), and to achieving the deep decarbonisation of energy intensive industries such as chemical and cement plants and refineries is underlined in the NPS.  The government notes the barriers to deployment of CCS are commercial rather than technological, and the deployment of CCS is reliant on the availability of infrastructure for the transportation and storage of CO2. 

7. NEW ELECTRICITY NETWORKS

The government notes the importance of this is two-fold: connecting new sources of electricity generation with each other and to centres of demand, and the potential risk of large scale power supply interruptions in the absence of a sufficiently robust network.  The need for onshore reinforcement works is demonstrated and given great weight where it represents an efficient and economical means of connecting a new generating station to the network, reinforces the network to accommodate such connections, or reinforces the network to ensure that it is sufficiently resilient and capacious to reliably supply either existing or anticipated future levels of demand.

8. NUCLEAR POWER

Whilst undoubtedly taking a less prominent role than in the 2011 EN-1, the 2021 draft at 3.3.39-40 still carefully states nuclear power plants provide continuous, reliable, safe low carbon power, and that additional new nuclear generating capacity beyond Hinkley Point C will be needed to meet the UK's energy objectives.  A new EN-6 national policy statement will follow to address nuclear generating infrastructure that is deployable after 2025.

9. ENVIRONMENTAL AND BIODIVERSITY NET GAIN, AND PRINCIPLES OF GOOD DESIGN

Environmental principles that were not mentioned back in 2011 are now given prominence in the 2021 drafts.  It is expected that following a tabled amendment to the Environment Bill, NSIPs shall take subject to a statutory BNG requirement. As in 2011, the NPS seeks to embed good design across all energy infrastructure, with the narrative also referring to opportunities for nature inclusive design.  The Horlock Rules for substations and related assets are expressly referenced in the draft NPS for the first time, and critically for new electricity line projects, there is now a strong starting presumption of undergrounding in National Parks and AONB, unless the harm of doing so outweighs the landscape and visual benefit.

What happens next?

Following the consultation (on which BEIS has posed 27 questions, and seeks general additional observations from consultees), Parliament will then get a say. Parliamentary scrutiny of the Airports NPS demonstrated that straightforward parliamentary approval of a draft NPS cannot be taken for granted, even by a government with a large majority. On each draft NPS, BEIS will be required to respond to recommendations of a Committee of either House, or a resolution of either House, within a specified period. So the consultation is part of a wider process, and not an end in itself.

The timing of the NPS review, and the transitional arrangements decided on by the Secretary of State, do sit uncomfortably with the UK government's messaging around the need for urgency in delivery of new generating capacity. No planning policy change will occur until the revised NPS are finally designated - until then the existing 2011 suite of NPS suite will continue to have effect, creating a degree of frustration to those wanting to make use of clear policy support for low carbon infrastructure that the new NPS promise to deliver.