Can opponents of windmills go to sleep now that the Council of State dealt a major blow to the construction of wind farms in the Netherlands on Wednesday? Before new wind turbines can be erected, the highest administrative court requires an environmental assessment from the government based on European law. At present, the requirements, for example regarding noise, safety or cast shadow, are still of national origin.
It is clear that the opponents have something to celebrate. Because the decision of the Council of State will in any case cause delays. According to the Council, there was no room to judge otherwise. Because last year the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg had demanded exactly the same environmental assessment for a wind farm in Nevele, Belgium. Then those European rules also apply to the wind farm in Delfzijl, which was judged on Wednesday.
But once the government has drawn up the necessary environmental assessment, the Council of State writes, municipalities and provinces will be “free again to align with the wind turbine standards that may have changed by then.” Three questions about the future of onshore wind.
1 What immediate consequences will the ruling have?
Delays in the construction of new wind farms. “Months, and maybe more,” says lawyer Renata Königel of Asselbergs & Klinkhamer, who specializes in issues related to wind turbines. For municipalities and provinces, every project will revolve around the same question: do we wait until the national government has completed its environmental assessment, or are we going to draw up standards ourselves? In the first case, according to her, delay is a fact.
The second option, that lower governments themselves set standards, is expressly referred to by the Council of State as an escape route. In that case, however, good reasons must be given as to why those own standards may apply in that case.
Opting for option two also does not guarantee fast processing. “In that case, each municipality, each province has to form its own opinion about what is acceptable,” says Königel. When a wind farm is built somewhere, it always leads to discussion, even if clear national standards apply. “That will only increase if the provinces start pioneering themselves.”
How often municipalities and provinces themselves start working with standards will probably depend, among other things, on how far the preparations have progressed. The run-up to the construction of a wind farm can take years, so unless the first pile should have been driven into the ground soon, a few months extra waiting time can often be added.
In addition, local authorities are incurring quite a bit if they come up with their own rules, says Königel. “You just have to dare to put yourself in the shoes of the legislator.”
The delay can also have consequences for subsidies. The government helps to pay for wind farms provided they are completed within the agreed term. “Rightly so, because otherwise that money will remain on the shelf,” says Olof van der Gaag, director of the NVDE sector association, for entrepreneurs in sustainable energy. “But now it can happen that some don’t come on time anymore. Then they will lose their subsidy.” Van der Gaag hopes that the government will be lenient in such cases.
2What is actually wrong with the standards for wind turbines?
In terms of content, the Council of State does not comment on the standards. “It is more of a procedural decision,” says lawyer Königel. “The European directive says: you must subject standards for major projects to an environmental assessment. That has not happened with the standards for wind turbines.”
Critics have already wondered whether the standards still meet now that mills are getting much bigger
The judgment of the Council of State comes at a time when critics were already wondering whether the old standards still met. The newest ones among the more than two thousand windmills are usually much larger than the older ones. Some reach heights of 250 meters or more.
“They cause more and more nuisance, people are also litigating more and more,” says Königel. She mentions the low-frequency noise produced by the turbines as a possible additional standard. “I can imagine that the legislator will now say something about that.”
3Does the future of onshore wind energy look different now?
That depends on what comes out of the (European) assessment of the standards. A tightening of the standards is possible, but it is also possible that the national rules prove to be adequate. NVDE director Van der Gaag does not expect any major changes. “It is not without reason that the current procedure is already time-consuming. Wind farms are really not just being built everywhere.”
Lawyer Königel doubts whether the standards are now strict enough. But according to her, it is “very difficult to say” what will come of the assessment.
Rik Harmsen, who is responsible for onshore wind turbines at the NWEA industry association for the wind energy sector, hopes that the assessment under European law is a temporary bump. “But we don’t know how quickly the procedure will go and what the outcome will be.”
According to Van der Gaag and Harmsen, the goal of the Climate Agreement to generate 35 terrawatt hours of sustainable electricity on land (with wind and sun) by 2030 is not endangered. In nine years’ time, the Netherlands must generate about 70 percent of the required electricity sustainably. “We’re already pretty close to that goal, and we still have some time,” says Harmsen. “However, with every project that ends up in uncertainty, the energy transition becomes a little more difficult. We have no opinion on the verdict. If the judge decides this, then it must be done. But the consequences are annoying.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 1, 2021