18.07.2023 | Currently we are taking too long

Full acceleration of approval procedures

Lengthy approval procedures are one of the biggest barriers to expanding renewable energies. With its announcement of the ‘acceleration bill’, the federal government has set out its proposals for tightening up approval procedures for large-scale facilities. Though this approach is to be welcomed, and additional measures would further improve its effectiveness.

 

In Switzerland, it can sometimes take more than 15 years to reach the point where a large-scale power production facility can be built. Taking into account future deactivation of nuclear power plants and growing demand due to electrification, this is too slow. There is a threat of high import dependency in winter, with risks for security of supply. Accelerating approval procedures is something that has been discussed intensively for some time already. On 28 June 2023, the Federal Council announced what is referred to as the ‘acceleration bill’, in which it set out its proposals for how it wants to tighten up the approval procedures for large-scale facilities.

Why do approval procedures take so long?

The process for approving a new large-scale facility is governed in the Spatial Planning Act, amongst others. With the aim of making economical use of land, it requires a range of planning stages in addition to the planning permission procedure itself. The overall process, when simplified, looks something like this: In the first stage, the area or location of the facility needs to be identified in cantonal planning, in what is known as the cantonal structural plan. It is then down to the municipal authorities to declare the site a building zone in what is called the use zoning plan, under consideration of the structural plan. Both of these planning procedures are a requirement for a planning application to the municipal authorities, as a start to the planning permission procedure. The planning permission procedure includes checking the possible impacts of the planned large-scale facility from all legal standpoints. For larger-scale facilities, this includes an environmental impact assessment, which involves thoroughly checking the repercussions for nature and the environment. In addition to a planning permission, any given project may also involve other special legal permissions (e.g. aviation legislation in the case of wind turbines) or, in the case of hydropower, a license.

In practice, each of these three procedural steps can take around two years, so it can take a good six years to obtain planning permission. However, objections and any subsequent legal proceedings can delay projects even further. Those affected, as well as environmental organisations, are able to separately contest what has been determined within usage planning as well as the planning permission. Depending on how things are structured in each canton, three judicial authorities can be involved for each redress (two cantonal judicial authorities and the federal court). By the time these procedural steps and all legal proceedings are complete, this can all add up to the 15 years mentioned at the start.

Content of the government’s bill

With the announcement of the acceleration bill, the Federal Council aims to simplify and shorten the procedural steps. At the heart of the proposal is the introduction of a concentrated, cantonal process for solar plants and wind turbines of national interest (i.e. large-scale facilities; threshold value defined by federal government). This concentrated process consolidates usage planning and planning permission. Two positive effects are immediately discernible with respect to the information above. Firstly, one procedural step is eliminated, as the rezoning of the site and the planning permission are granted together with what is known as the (combined) planning approval. Secondly, only one single legal action is possible against this planning approval, meaning that the rezoning and planning permission are assessed together in court. No new processes are planned for hydropower, though several cantons are already acquainted with concentrated processes in certain circumstances.

The length of the procedural steps is also to be cut. The planning permission granted will only be contestable at the highest cantonal court and the federal court, which means one court fewer for legal proceedings. The federal government is also planning to introduce deadlines of 180 days, both for legal action as well as for the planning approval process. The Federal Council has specified, however, that this relates to execution periods; there would therefore be no direct consequences should authorities or courts not meet the deadline.

Possible improvements

To allow the proposals of the federal government to reach their full effect, it is necessary to ensure that the planned deadlines are met. In this regard, there are two aspects in particular that are not explicitly addressed at present in the bill. Firstly, the cantons need sufficient resources and skillsets to efficiently action the concentrated processes, which need to be set up from scratch. The federal government could create incentives for this, share skills or, where necessary, provide additional financing. Secondly, processes can, in practice, be delayed by responses from specialist departments that are often duplicated and inconsistent and can take a long time. To this effect, it should be ensured that responses are free of contradiction and are only completed once and conclusively. Where responses are not received in time, it should be assumed that they will not be provided.

The bill also fails to include any superordinated planning by the federal government. There is no mechanism to ensure that the cantons set aside a total number of areas and locations for power production that would be enough to create security of supply. There is also no pan-Swiss, superordinated weighting of security of supply against conservation and landscape protection. It would be helpful for the federal government to at least create transparency around the level of goal attainment and for it to assume a coordinating and monitoring role. Supplementary planning by the federal government would also be an option, e.g. a federal policy to which the cantons are bound.

Lastly, there is also no mechanism for coordinating approval of the facility with the – as yet separate – approval of grid connection lines necessary for siphoning off power. According to the federal government’s bill, grid connection lines must still be approved separately according to federal law. There is the risk that even when a facility is approved, the project can still be delayed because it has no grid connection.

It takes courage to make a change

The federal government’s proposals will not be universally welcomed, given they lead to certain shifts in responsibility. An example being that the concentrated process transfers the responsibility for approving a facility from the municipality to the canton. Municipalities will still be involved, but in future they will no longer be able to make conclusive decisions on projects of national interest. A further adjustment envisages that local environmental associations will no longer be able to object to these kinds of projects (though this does not apply to national organisations).

Ultimately, it will not be possible to achieve meaningful acceleration of procedures without also shaking up the status quo. What’s more, the public benefit offered by security of supply is important enough to set bolder changes in motion. This overriding aim also calls for those decisions previously made on a local level to be transferred to a more central discourse.

 

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