How new-build assets stack up against behaviour change is exactly the question we should be addressing in public planning

‘Relevant technical experts’ must respond this week to provide input to BEIS over how energy planning and national planning statements will take account of sustainability and the required Habitats Regulations Assessment.

Six national planning statements that underpin planning decisions on energy assets were adopted in 2011 and at that time it was suggested they should be reviewed every five years. A decade on, clamour for revision has grown because  of major changes in law since then – particularly the adoption of the New Zero carbon emissions target by 2050.

BEIS has now said it will revise the planning statements by the end of the year. In his regular planning blog Angus Walker, partner at law firm BDB Pitmans, described that as “a very challenging timetable, given that the original NPSs were published for consultation in November 2009 and took 20 months to be designated from that point, and we aren’t at that stage with these ones yet.”

On 23 April BEIS requested input from statutory and relevant technical experts on the scope of the Appraisal of Sustainability and approach to the HRA and it wants comments by Thursday (6 May).

The national statements – the overarching NPS for Energy (EN-1) and five others  (EN-2 to EN-6) that cover infrastructure for fossil fuel electricity generation, renewable energy, gas supply and gas and oil pipelines, electricity networks and nuclear – do not include any sites, locations or other spatial proposals and, therefore, the HRA is an assessment of the policy content only.

BEIS says the assessments at this stage are ‘high-level and strategic in nature’. Other project assessments are needed for specific applications. However that includes some fundamental issues. For example, on alternative solutions.


Why not take the no-build option?

Defra guidance on the application of the alternative solutions test is to determine whether there are any other feasible ways to deliver the overall objective of the plan or project, which will be less damaging to the affected sites, so the absence of feasible alternative solutions must be demonstrated.  But BEIS says that does not include ‘wide ranging alternatives’ that may deliver the same overall objective. It says ‘the range of alternative options are curtailed by the boundary created by the objectives’ . In a telling example, it says ‘alternative solutions for a new motorway would not normally include the assessment of other modes of transport’.

If that is the case, how and where are such alternatives to be assessed? That question has become more important as digitalisation and a whole system approach starts to dramatically change how we meet our needs.

National policy statements are necessary to avoid the cost and delay of reopening national debates every time a wind turbine, substation, battery or other energy asset is required. But if we are to have an energy system where gas, electricity, vehicle fuels and other energy vectors are going to be assessed on a ‘whole system’ basis, somewhere we have to be able to consider not just whether one asset will do its job at least impact, but also whether it is the best solution overall.

Increasingly, it also has to be assessed against digital or human behaviour options that may not require an asset at all, and instead favour sharing or behaviour change.

The problem of assessing ‘soft’ solutions against easily identifiable (and quantifiable) assets is one that the energy industry has been grappling with for years and at last we are making some progress towards a system that is able to automatically select, for example, a ‘demand side’ response instead of starting up a new asset. But still energy decisions remain largely in silos, so that decisions on the future of electricity and gas networks in a location are made without reference to each other.

As we consider how best to meet our needs in future, and the shift towards digital and distributed solution opens alternative options, it is not enough to say that NPS is not the place to discuss alternatives. Where is the place?

There must be somewhere to do that visibly, and to show why the fixed asset choice has been made, that is outside single silos like the ‘roads’ section of DfT or the ‘gas’ section of Ofgem. It is needed in the same way NPSs are within their silos: to avoid repeating arguments ad nauseum, the decision making must be front and centre: easy to find and understand – even for people who do not agree with it.

Digitalised and distributed options across the economy make it even more important that this looks across silos and not within them, not least because we can’t know now where human behaviour results in new – sometimes short-lived – crossovers.