Moving aggressively to solve a problem that vexes U.S. energy planners, Great Britain has centralized control over the siting of transmission lines and other facilities needed to expand renewable energy and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Britain's Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) opened for business last month, starting consultations with project developers ahead of official reviews of energy proposals that will begin in March. Reviews of other infrastructure proposals, including housing, roads, railways and ports will follow soon after.
"A one-stop shop. That is the idea," said Richard Adams, an associate in the London office of the law firm Jones Day.
Under the 2008 law that created it, the IPC must decide on project applications within nine months of their submission -- a timetable that, Adams and others say, is revolutionary. "It's pretty much widely acknowledged in our country ... [infrastructure planning] takes a long time," Adams said.
But the global push to curb greenhouse gas emissions has changed that, IPC advocates say. "We haven't got seven or eight years to run through something because we have a pressing infrastructure need here," Adams said.
Great Britain must replace almost a third of its electricity generation capacity to meet its energy needs for the next two decades. It must also meet a mandated 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 levels by 2020 and obtain 40 percent of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2020.
To reach its goals, British government officials say they must boost its renewable energy production and nuclear power and launch carbon capture and sequestration projects. The 2008 Planning Act, which created the IPC, was largely aimed at meeting those goals.
The law requires the British ministries in charge of infrastructure to release "national policy statements" to guide IPC decisions about what is "nationally significant infrastructure" (E&ENews PM, Nov. 9).
Previously, infrastructure siting in the United Kingdom could have required the approval of as many as five separate authorities, capped by a signature from the secretary of state. Project applicants and objectors were allowed to "cross examine" each other's arguments in local hearings.
It took six years from project proposal to decision for the Sizewell B nuclear plant in Suffolk, eight years to approve a major high-voltage upgrade project in North Yorkshire and more than two years to approve two 65-megawatt wind farm applications, according to the United Kingdom's Energy and Climate Change Department.
"It serves neither the interests of energy security, the interests of the low carbon transition, nor the interest of people living in areas where infrastructure may be built, for the planning process to take years to come to a decision," Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said.
Sir Michael Pitt, chairman of the IPC, said his agency expects to receive about 50 applications in the first year. Among the first applications are proposals for two nuclear power plants, a biomass power plant and five other power plants, 15 transmission upgrades and eight onshore and offshore wind farms.
The concentration of siting power for those facilities worries environmental and other citizen groups, which fear that local objections to major projects won't be heeded by IPC commissioners, who will be appointed and not elected.
"This has been set up to push small people like us out of the way. ... It's dictation, not consultation," Caroline Evans, who lives in the village of Brechfa, told The Sunday Telegraph last month. Brechfa is the site of a proposed wind farm.
Said Neil Sinden, policy director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, "We will be looking closely at how it works, to see whether it can meet our tests. If it hasn't turned down a number of damaging schemes in its first year, this will raise serious questions about its independence and green credentials."
IPC, industry assurances
But the IPC's Pitt is promising his commission will reject applications when the developers have not sufficiently sought public input. "I am determined that the IPC will ensure individuals and groups get improved opportunities to have their views fully considered and taken into account," Pitt said last month as the commission opened its doors.
While watchdog groups are concerned about the commission's efforts to limit "adversarial" inquiries, Pitt said such limits are aimed at protecting citizens from large stakeholders with deep pockets that can use endless inquiries to exhaust their opponents' resources.
Simon Griew, National Grid's commercial service manager for asset management in the United Kingdom, said the new process has pushed his company to be even more diligent in its pre-application consultations with its neighbors. National Grid owns and maintains national electricity transmission in England and Wales and operates the system in Great Britain. It also owns the entire U.K. natural gas distribution system and several transmission systems in the northeastern United States.
"In a sense, the government is saying that you will have a very strong say for local community and stakeholders because the applicant has to go through an extremely rigorous consultation process with you, much more than in the past," Griew said. "It will have to be meaningful. The promoter of the project will have to demonstrate what consultation has been done and how that consultation has been taken into account."
National Grid has started a public consultation process for two transmission upgrades to support nuclear power plants at Suffolk and Somerset, Griew said. The new process begins public consultation much earlier in the application process and requires additional discipline and rigor to project planning, he said.
"We have to be very clear for ourselves and other people what really the options are and how we arrived at the options we have and how from there eliminated them," Griew said. "Really, for the first time, the way we consult has been set out. ... We have to up our game even further so we are not following the letter of the legislation. We want to be leading in how we do this."
The new planning process could open the door for National Grid to start "anticipatory" projects, such as transmission lines that will link up potential offshore wind near Scotland, Griew said.
Whether that happens will be a big test for the IPC system because -- just as in the United States -- the United Kingdom has "chicken and egg" issues on renewable energy and transmission. Nobody will build transmission if there is no generation, and nobody will build generation without transmission.
'Wait and see'
The overarching goal of the IPC is to streamline official public consultations. The current statutory requirement for the IPC schedule is nine months for inquiry and decision, six months for hearings and three months to issue a decision and reason statements.
Requiring applicants to consult with communities before submitting IPC applications represents "a change of emphasis" in infrastructure planning, said Adams, the London lawyer. "But whether in practice whether it turns out to be a major change once everyone involved in the system has a say, I don't know," he said. "We will have to wait and see."
Project opponents have six weeks after a national policy statement is finalized to contest the statement in court. The objections can only be procedural, however, such as that the government did not include certain information or stakeholders in its reviews.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have both promised to challenge any policy statement that does not have cutting greenhouse gas emissions as a central consideration. The Nuclear Free Local Authorities of U.K. and Ireland said they will submit "a detailed submission" against the prioritization of nuclear power at the expense of renewable power and push the need for a full public inquiry as a part of the IPC process.
The nuclear power national policy statement is particularly vulnerable to legal challenges because it is the only "site specific" statement, outlining 10 potential sites for nuclear reactors, and may prompt early local protests, Adams said.
Once a policy statement is set, there will likely be more local objections to each application. But opponents can only offer reasons why a project should be built elsewhere, Adams said. There may also be some questions of a sufficient amount of time to cross-examine or "sufficient procedural fairness," he said. Objectors have six weeks after the IPC makes a decision to appeal to the courts.
"If [IPC is] true to their word and cuts down on cross-examination and receives a lot of the evidence in written form rather than oral battles back and forth, then maybe ... they will succeed," Adams said.
Would it fly in the U.S.?
Would a national commission to site infrastructure get off the ground in the United States, where siting is usually a state and local decision?
The closest thing to the IPC for energy is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's authority to site natural gas pipelines and its limited "backstop" authority to site transmission projects.
The 2005 energy law provides FERC with "backstop" authority to site a transmission line contained within what the Energy Department considers a "congested" electricity corridor, if a state has not acted on the project within a year of its submission. Supporters of federal authority to site interstate projects point out that the United States has built 11,000 miles of natural gas pipeline but only 660 miles of high-voltage interstate transmission lines in the past nine years.
The IPC "is an intriguing idea," said Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of public policy for the American Wind Energy Association, who supports an expansion of FERC authority on siting. The IPC effort, he said, can address "disjointed planning, which is certainly a problem we have in this country."
Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group and a former commissioner of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said an IPC-like body would be welcome theoretically for infrastructure policy. "There is a case to be made that we ought to have something like an infrastructure commission," he said. "Clearly, an infrastructure commission would stimulate a lot of debate and discussion."
Brown added, "What practical results you would get from that I am not sure ... but people ought to be thinking about these things."
Mary Ellen Paravalos, National Grid's U.S. vice president of transmission regulation and commercial services, said the United States is not ready for a centralized siting authority. "My gut reaction is it would be too much for folks to get comfortable with in the near term," she said.
Paravalos said a central siting entity like the IPC would not be necessary if transmission planning and cost allocation rules are clear and FERC has full "backstop" authority for interstate lines that was in a bill passed this summer by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "That is going to go a long way here," she said.
But will it be enough for all of the infrastructure needs the United States faces?
"There are a whole bunch of levels, not just electricity, where the infrastructure needs are enormous," Brown said. "It sort of knocks your socks off."