Renewable Acceleration Areas: the administrative challenge of the renewable tsunami

[Originally published in ‘Energías Renovables]

The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive carried out to reach the Fit for 55 objective, and whose ambition was increased in response to Ukraine’s invasion with REPowerEU, requires the European Union to deploy renewables in such a way as to achieve the new renewables target (at least 42.5% renewable production by 2030). This will undoubtedly contribute to the global tripling of renewable energy capacity, as called for in the first Global Stocktake adopted at COP28 in Dubai. Ana Barreira, director and founder of the International Institute for Law and the Environment, and Marta Vicioso, environmental lawyer of the Institute, discuss these matters.

An essential element in achieving the 42.5% objective is to simplify and streamline the authorization procedures for renewable energy projects, eliminating unnecessary administrative burdens. However, this cannot be done to the detriment of environmental and territorial integrity. To this end, Member States will have to elaborate a plan (or several plans, if done by technology) identifying the most suitable areas to host the renewable tsunami. These are known as Renewable Acceleration Areas (RAA), consisting of sufficiently homogeneous land, inland water and sea areas where the deployment of a specific type or specific types of renewable energy sources is not expected to have a significant environmental impact, given that they are areas where human intervention has already taken place, i.e. they are of an artificial or constructed nature, such as roofs of buildings, mines, farms and industrial areas, among others.

These ZAAs will form part of the mapping, coordinated with local and regional authorities, that must be carried out for the installation of renewable energy plants and their evacuation infrastructures, such as the grid and storage facilities, to achieve by 2030 a renewable energy penetration of 48% and an electricity system with generation based on renewables of 81%, as foreseen in the update of the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP).

However, the European Commission, in its assessment of the draft update of Spain’s NECP, has pointed out that it does not include a mapping of the necessary areas to achieve the national contribution to the new renewables target, nor the designation of the ZAAs or the necessary infrastructure zones. At the same time, the Commission notes that the draft has not assessed compliance with the requirements relating to the authorization deadlines that require renewable projects to be granted within two years.

The plan or plans identifying the RAAs will have to be subject to Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and, if they are likely to have a significant impact on the Natura 2000 network, to the appropriate assessment required by the Habitats Directive. This will speed up the processing of renewable projects located in these areas as they will not have to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

In Spain, measures were already introduced to accelerate the deployment of renewables as a consequence of the invasion of Ukraine, which, precisely, prevented certain projects from being submitted to EIA. However, this environmental zoning does not correspond to the ZAAs, nor were they included in a plan previously submitted to SEA. Nevertheless, it is true that, for the selection of the Renewable Acceleration Zones, territories under environmental protection regimes will be excluded and appropriate tools, such as wildlife sensitivity maps, will be used.

There is no doubt that the transposition of these regulatory requirements will demand a considerable effort on the part of the Spanish administration, not only due to the tight deadline imposed, since the RAAs must be identified before February 21, 2026 (there are only two years remaining), but also because of the distribution of powers in the areas of energy, environment and urban planning. What is certain is that the new planning will have to consider aspects related to the protection of biodiversity and land occupation, among others, which could generate conflicts of competence if close coordination between the three levels of the Spanish Public Administration is not prioritized.

The main competencies in territorial planning and environmental protection correspond to the Autonomous Communities (AC) and the municipalities. For example, according to the Law on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity (LPNB), the proposal, declaration and management of Special Conservation Areas (ZEC), Special Protection Areas for Birds (ZEPA) and Sites of Community Importance (SCI), which are located entirely on land, are responsibility of the Autonomous Communities. The latter also have exclusive competence for land-use planning, in accordance with the Spanish Constitution.

RED III requires the promotion of synergies between renewable energies and other land uses, such as food production, and the competence in agricultural matters essentially lies with the ACs. These multiple uses will have to be defined on the basis of the land-use planning rules adopted at the regional level.   

The municipalities will also play a fundamental role in the zoning of renewables, since the Law regulating the Bases of the Local Regime (LBLR) grants them competence in matters of urbanism, which includes urban planning. Therefore, they will have decision-making power in the identification of the RAAs, since urban planning includes urban, developable and non-developable land for special protection. 

The General State Administration, at the same time, is competent for those projects carried out in the territorial sea as long as there is no ecological continuity of the marine ecosystem with the natural terrestrial space in accordance with the LPNB.

Similarly, it should not be forgotten that the collaboration and coordination between the State, the Autonomous Communities and the municipalities also responds to the principle of administrative efficiency included in the Spanish Constitution. Therefore, the planning instruments already developed at the regional level will facilitate the process of identification of the RAAs, in compliance with the aim pursued by the aforementioned principle.

As is evident, the preparation of the plan or plans identifying the RAAs will be a complex task, requiring close collaboration between the different levels of the Administration of our country. The ultimate objective must be to draw up an exhaustive and coherent plan that guarantees the integrity of the environment and the territory.

Ana Barreira

Ana Barreira es directora y abogada del Instituto Internacional de Derecho y Medio Ambiente (IIDMA). LL.M en Estudios Jurídicos Internacionales (New York University) y en Derecho Ambiental (London University).

Marta Vicioso

Marta es graduada en Derecho y Relaciones Internacionales por la Universidad Pontificia de Comillas (ICADE). Al terminar los estudios universitarios, se mudó a Bruselas durante un año para llevar a cabo unas prácticas en un despacho internacional, profundizando su conocimiento de los fundamentos y procedimientos del derecho de la Unión Europea.

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