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The Maritime Area Planning Bill - is it enough?

22 Sep, 2021

The much anticipated and long-awaited Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021 was published in its final form on 16 August, writes Tina Raleigh, Head of Offshore Ireland.

This Bill is the State’s response to much-needed reform of marine governance in Ireland and it reshapes the consenting regime for the development of marine projects.

A major overhaul of marine planning was long overdue with the current legislation governing marine area development dating back almost nine decades ago to the Foreshore Act of 1933. It is fair to say a huge amount has changed in that time.

The Bill provides for two separate consents which will be required for the development of offshore renewable energy projects. One consent is needed to occupy the maritime area – namely a Maritime Area Consent (MAC) – and another to allow development of that area – a development permission. A MAC must be obtained first, following which the development permission can be sought.

The Bill also authorises the setup of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA) which will be responsible for the granting of MACs, licences and the enforcement of the new regulatory regime. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will decide on the establishment day for the MARA. An Bord Pleanála will be responsible for the grant of the development consent on the foreshore. The rules pertaining to Special Maritime Area Consent will allow for the fast-tracking of the Relevant Projects through the planning system. Once the Bill is enacted, these projects will be invited by the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications to submit an application for a MAC.

Subsequent projects will have to wait for the establishment of MARA in order to submit an application for a MAC. While the publication of the Bill is to be welcomed, there are several areas which could slow down or impinge an application for consent under the Bill. Outlined below are the issues identified along with proposals for change:

Planning permission

Obtaining a MAC is not a guarantee of planning permission and a project might subsequently be turned down by An Bord Pleanála. As the Bill is currently drafted, the project would automatically lose its MAC, sending the project back to the beginning of the development process at an enormous cost in time and money. Allowance should be given within the Bill to allow a fresh consent application be made within the MAC area. Long-stop dates can be used to prevent hoarding of a marine area with no intention of developing a project. This is much fairer and makes the 2030 target more achievable.

Flexibility

Given the complexity, rapidly evolving technology and lengthy delivery timelines associated with offshore wind energy, there is a significant need for design and consent flexibility. The EU Commission says that providing “flexibility during the design and pre-planning phase of offshore wind energy projects and…a degree of freedom to optimise wind turbine parameters prior to construction…is a proven and acceptable approach.” But this approach is missing from the Bill, preventing developers from using the most up-to-date technology, which ultimately affect the consumer by driving up electricity prices.

Delivering for 2030

We cannot reach the 5 GW target with the Relevant Projects alone. However, the Bill requires other projects to wait until MARA is established before they can apply for a Marine Area Consent (MAC).

But MARA will not, at the most optimistic estimate, be ready until 12-18 months after the Bill is enacted. We cannot connect 5 GW of offshore wind by 2030 if projects must wait two years for a MAC. The Bill must give the Minister the power to grant MACs to projects that can be connected to the grid by the end of the decade.

Ireland faces growing security of supply challenges and is increasingly exposed to climate change. To tackle this head on, we must develop offshore wind farms as quickly as possible. If Ireland’s renewable energy targets, which are binding, are to be met, it is critical that the Bill is enacted soon, and that MARA is established and adequately resourced.

To do this we must have a fair and transparent planning system and that is why the Maritime Area Planning Bill must be passed before the end of the year with the proposed changes incorporated.

It is really positive that the Bill is earmarked as priority legislation and the industry hopes to see it’s speedy passage through the Houses. Ireland has committed to meeting 70% of its electricity demand by renewable sources by 2030 and the current Programme for Government has a welcome and ambitious target of 5GW of offshore wind by 2030.

If we are to meet these targets, time is of the essence and this piece of legislation must be treated with the urgency it deserves and needs.

 

This article appeared in the Autumn 2021 edition of Wind Energy Ireland's Irish Wind Magazine, which can be accessed here.