Electricity storage: a relaxation of planning control ahead?

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Why is storage important?

The transition of the electricity network in the UK to a smarter, flexible and more modern system has been underway for some time, with Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) transitioning to Distribution System Operators (DSOs) with more responsibility for actively managing the distribution network. Storage, whether by battery or other technology, provides opportunities for increased flexibility for the electricity network, in particular at times when there is an imbalance between generation and consumption.

Advancements in battery technology and a developing battery industry mean storage projects with over 550MW capacity are now being proposed by developers. However, current regulatory controls have made it difficult for battery storage technology at this scale to be widely deployed.

What are the existing planning challenges for storage?

Currently, there is no definition of "electricity storage" within planning law, which has led to a lack of clarity in relation to planning requirements.

The current regulatory regime is not clear on whether electricity storage technologies constitute an electricity generating scheme. The Planning Act 2008 requires that where an existing or extended electricity generating station results in a capacity of over 50 MW in England, and 350MW in Wales, it will be classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).  As a result of this, a Development Consent Order is required.

This means a different application process for planning, taking the decision from the local planning authority and moving it to the Planning Inspectorate (i.e. Government approval). 

What is the latest consultation on the planning system for storage?

In response to push-back from the industry on an earlier consultation in January 2019 regarding the treatment of electricity storage within the planning system, BEIS has issued a follow-up consultation along with two published two draft orders; the Infrastructure Planning (Electricity Storage Facilities) Order, and the Electricity Storage Facilities (Exemption) (England and Wales) Order.

The original proposals covered England only, and were to retain the 50MW NSIP threshold for standalone storage facilities, and to provide a new capacity threshold for co-located sites. The revised proposals are (in summary) to carve out electricity storage (other than pumped hydro) from the NSIP regime. This means that a standalone storage project (other than pumped hydro) would not fall under the NSIP regime (unless directed by the Secretary of State) and for co-located projects involving storage, the storage element would not trigger the NSIP threshold by itself.  It is proposed this would apply through England and Wales. The consultation on these proposals is open until 10 December 2019 and can be found here.

The BEIS proposals set out in the draft orders and consultation seek to clarify the planning law requirements by introducing a new definition of "electricity storage facility".  Under the proposals, electricity storage facilities (other than hydroelectric pumped storage facilities) would be exempt from the requirement to obtain a Development Consent Order and consent under s.36 of the Electricity Act 1989.  In other words, larger storage projects could receive consent from local planning authorities under the country's Town and Country Planning Act.  While there are advantages to the NSIP regime, there is potential for the planning process to take significantly longer and cost more, than for a project with a lower capacity, creating a significant challenge for larger storage projects. 

The proposed changes to the planning regime could therefore reduce the pre-construction costs which might otherwise have been in place.  It will also allow developers who have capped their projects at 49.9MW (in England) to access larger project capacities, which can unlock investment.

The new proposals, if implemented, are likely to come as a welcome change for developers adding exempt electricity storage facilities to existing electricity generating stations.

However, it is important to note that a Development Consent Order may still be required where the development also involves non-electricity storage related element.