Solar panels and wind turbines on Madeira, Portugal. Photo: © Leonid Sorokin /

Plan to fast-track renewable energy deployment in the EU

By: Emilia Samuelsson

To boost renewable energy adoption, the European Commission has introduced new guidelines for Renewables Acceleration Areas (RAAs). However, a recent report shows many countries are unprepared for RAA designation and sensitivity mapping.

In mid-May, the European Commission presented guidance and recommendations to accelerate the renewable energy roll-out, including new guidance on Renewables Acceleration Areas (RAAs), as well as new guidance on auction design for renewable energy, marking an essential step towards an adequate implementation of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). As defined in RED III, RAAs are “areas particularly suitable to develop renewable energy projects, differentiating between technologies, and where the deployment of the specific type of renewable energy is not expected to have a significant environmental impact” (Article 15c 1(a)).This means that EU member states have until February 2026 to designate RAAs as a subset of the overall spatial mapping that they need to carry out by May 2025 to reach their 2030 renewable energy targets. The goal is to accelerate European renewable energy deployment by limiting overall environmental permitting to one year for projects in RAAs and to two years in areas outside of RAAs.
Elif Gündüzyeli, who heads a European renewable energy programme at the Nature Conservancy NGO, saw the guidance as a step in the right direction. “The Commission’s clarification on the role of RAAs as part of the broader national spatial mapping for renewables – as well as emphasis on the need for robust stakeholder and community engagement at early stages of project development – is very much welcome,” Gündüzyeli said.

RAAs focusing on solar and wind energy deployment, can be a game changer for meeting EU and global climate and energy goals, if implemented in a clear, inclusive, and comprehensive way.
The trade association WindEurope, which had long campaigned for a solution to the planning bottleneck that meant developers often waited a decade or more for approval, also welcomed the new guidance, noting that the legislative changes following on from the REPowerEU plan had already helped raise the share of wind power in Europe’s electricity mix to 19%, up from 14% in 2021.

CEO Giles Dickson said REPowerEU had been a “decisive kick-start for Europe’s transition to local, clean and cheap electricity”. WindEurope – whose members are alert to the risk of undercutting by Chinese turbine producers in particular – also welcomed parallel guidance on the design of auctions for deployment of generation capacity. The European industry has struggled to compete purely on price with cheaper foreign options, and EU countries can now include “quality, ability to deliver the project on time, responsible business conduct, cyber-security and data security, contribution to resilience, environmental sustainability or innovation” in their auction design, as per the Commission’s guidance. In practice, this could mean that an offshore wind developer wins a bid based on local nature restoration efforts. Such initiatives have been seen in the North Sea by creating man-made reefs.

If EU countries apply the suggestions, companies with more “resilient” supply chains will also receive preferential treatment. “Resilience criteria should be applied as soon as possible,” according to WindEurope.
“Europe’s moving away from wind auctions based solely on price. Good,” Dickson said. “Non-price award criteria reward those projects that bring the biggest value to consumers and society. And tighter pre-qualification criteria help raise the bar on what sort of turbines get built.”

Despite specific provisions in RED III for spatial planning and designating RAAs, there are still considerable uncertainties surrounding the status of designation of RAAs and the planned approach among member states. A report1 by Öko-Institut e.V. provides an overview of the designation of RAAs in selected EU member states and key recommendations in order to improve spatial planning processes. The report includes recommendations for further steps in the implementation process that contribute to strategies allowing the permittance of renewable energy projects in an accelerated, yet environmentally and socially sustainable way.

These recommendations stem from analysis conducted by environmental and nature NGOs across the EU, focusing on member states’ spatial planning and mapping processes for renewable energy development. Six countries (Estonia, Germany, Greece, Spain, Poland, and Portugal) underwent close examination regarding their designation of RAAs, environmental sensitivity mapping, and public participation processes.
Overall, while most countries displayed greater ambition for renewable energy deployment, they were generally unprepared for RAA designation and sensitivity mapping, with the exception of Portugal, which stands out as a frontrunner in mapping renewable acceleration areas despite challenges such as administrative resources and public participation. In terms of public participation, only Estonia and Germany have successfully integrated inclusive public engagement into their spatial planning processes.

The report emphasises the importance of ensuring that public participation occurs “at an early stage” of the spatial planning process, offering multiple modes of engagement. Member states must ensure such participation happens early on, incorporating various accessible modes to ensure inclusive processes reflecting the diverse needs and interests of citizens and stakeholders. Given potential exemptions in environmental assessments under RED III, robust participatory mechanisms become even more crucial.

The study highlights the need for baseline standard requirements for data quality. Across all member states, factors contributing to poor data quality include outdated data, insufficient information on key areas, inconsistencies, and lack of integration of regional data due to coordination issues or insufficient outreach. Strengthening data collection practices is recommended, prioritising up-to-date and regional-specific data over relying solely on existing data for sensitivity mapping.

The report advocates for promoting coordination between national, regional, and local spatial planning frameworks and incentivising multilevel sensitivity mapping. Often, a notable lack of coordination exists between national-level planning frameworks and implementation at lower levels. Establishing clear visions, roadmaps, and guidelines at the national level that incorporate regional and local views is crucial for effectively designating RAAs. Recommendations include conducting comprehensive sensitivity mapping tailored to each member state, integrating regional analysis, and utilising existing frameworks as foundations while expanding upon them with relevant planning tools and additional data.

Addressing country-specific administrative shortcomings is essential, as bureaucratic and inefficient procedures often delay renewable energy deployment. These shortcomings may stem from a lack of skilled personnel or insufficiently digitalised administrative systems, leading to bottlenecks in permitting procedures. Investments in skilled personnel and efficient administrative systems are necessary to overcome these delays in spatial planning and RAA deployment.

The report stresses the importance of prioritising artificial and dual land use areas to mitigate land use conflicts in renewable energy projects. However, it notes a lack of policy definitions, expansion targets, and relevant data for such areas. Recommendations include establishing policy frameworks with formal definitions and mechanisms to prioritise these areas in spatial planning effectively.

Investing in grid capacity and considering proximity to the grid when mapping RAAs is crucial. Insufficient grid development may hinder member states’ ability to achieve planned renewable energy deployment, while inadequate consideration of grid proximity may lead to environmental disruption during new power line construction. Coordinating spatial planning with grid development plans and investments is urged to ensure alignment with other aspects of RED implementation.

In summary, the European Commission’s recent guidance marks progress in renewable energy deployment. Challenges persist in spatial planning and public participation, but recommendations from environmental NGOs offer pathways for improvement. Addressing administrative hurdles, enhancing data quality, and prioritising land use areas are key steps towards a sustainable energy future.

1 Overview of Renewable Energy Spatial Planning and Designation of Acceleration Areas in Selected EU Member States


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