A recent English planning appeal has fuelled the debate over what repowering really means. The Planning Inspectorate's appeal decision, published on 29 July 2019, interpreted the National Planning Policy Framework reference to "repowering of existing wind turbines" to include extending the operational life of an existing windfarm.
An application for a circa nine-year extension of Kirby Moor Wind Farm's original 25-year planning consent was approved on the basis that it was a repowering application, as opposed to an application for a new wind farm, and therefore subject to less onerous planning test. Accordingly, the 4.8MW wind farm's 12 turbines will remain in operation until March 2027 followed by a year of decommissioning works.
The local planning authority's decision
South Lakeland District Council had originally refused the application, despite an officer recommendation for approval, for a life extension for Kirby Moor wind farm on the basis that the benefits arising from the proposal, including continuing renewable energy generation and the decommissioning programme, did not outweigh the continuing adverse effects on the landscape and on the setting and character of the Lake District National Park (LDNP) and World Heritage Site (WHS) and on the local economy.
The four main issues in the appeal were therefore:
- The effect on the character and appearance of the area, including the setting and character of the LDNP and the WHS;
- The effect on designated heritage assets;
- The extent of any benefit accruing from the decommissioning and restoration schemes; and
- The extent of any benefit arising from renewable energy generation.
The National Planning Policy Framework
Before assessing each of these issues, however, there was a preliminary issue: whether the proposal for a life extension here was an application for "repowering of existing turbines" so that it fell within the exception to the standard test for approval of a proposed wind energy development.
Paragraph 154 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) provides that when determining planning applications for renewable development, local planning authorities should approve the application if its impacts are (or can be made) acceptable. There is then a reference to footnote 49.
Footnote 49 provides that, aside from ‘repowering’ applications, wind farms need to be in an area identified as suitable and should have the backing of the local community. In this case there were no such suitable areas identified in the development plan, and there was substantial local opposition. So if this was a new application, it would not be acceptable on the footnote 49 criteria. Categorised as a repowering application, however, the NPPF paragraph 154 test – that its impacts are (or can be made) acceptable – would apply instead of footnote 49.
The Council argued that this proposal was for a new windfarm on the grounds that the continuation of the life of existing turbines is not 'repowering'. The Planning Inspectorate disagreed.
The Inspector was persuaded that within the wind industry ‘repowering’ is an umbrella term covering replacement, replanting and extension of life and that repowering does not necessarily require physical replacement or enlargement of the turbines. The Inspector did however stress in the decision that this interpretation of 'repowering' should not be seen to reduce the weight to be given to development plan policies or to the varied views of local people.
The Scottish position
The Scottish Government's Onshore Wind Policy Statement accepts that repowering is a term that can be used or applied to mean a number of different things, depending on the nature and scale of what is being contemplated or proposed at any given site.
The current Scottish policy at Government level is to support repowering at existing sites in principle so as to make best use of the established infrastructure and grid connections; but each application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with established process and principles. In Scotland there is no direct equivalent to the English requirement to the effect that a windfarm proposal, unless it is a repowering project, needs to be in an area identified in advance as suitable and has the support of affected local communities.
The definition of repowering is of particular significance given that so many wind farms are due to reach the end of their original planning consent periods within the next 5-10 years. Although this English decision has no direct impact on the application of Scottish planning policy, it is interesting to see how the interpretation has been approached in a live application.
The case turned on the interpretation of the term 'repowering' and there was evidence that in the wind energy industry this term had a wider meaning than a literal interpretation might have suggested. The Inspector would have been mindful that the less onerous policy applicable to repowering applications reflects the fact that the impacts of continuing with wind energy development on a site which has been used for such development for a lengthy period of time will be different (not necessarily lesser) than the impacts of a new development. It would have been a strange outcome if a continuing development which involved a different layout of turbines would have benefitted from the less onerous policy but an extension of the life of the existing layout didn’t.
Get in touch
The Planning Inspectorate decision may be appealed so we will monitor further developments with interest.
Please contact Peter Ferguson to discuss any of the issues in this article.