EIA and electricity infrastructure

25th April 2013

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Bobby Clayton, from The Environment Partnership, describes some of the challenges facing environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners when planning site-based electricity transmission and distribution works

There are EIA Regulations for electricity transmission and distribution works comprising overhead lines. However the Regulations do not specifically address major site-based electricity transmission and distribution works such as substations (which transform electrical voltages) and converter stations (which convert electricity between direct and alternating current).

Frequently there is interesting debate when requesting a screening opinion from a local planning authority (LPA), as to whether such development requires EIA. The simple fact is that such works do not fall under any standard classification offered by schedule 1 or schedule 2 and an EIA is not a de facto requirement.

The relatively large-scale of such works often leads to a presumption that the Regulations simply must be applicable. Typically electricity transmission and distribution operators will either undertake EIA presented in an environmental statement if requested, or will provide a remedy by undertaking voluntary environmental assessment (presented in an environmental report).

This approach helps meet obligations of operators in their licences under schedule 9 of the Electricity Act 1989, which requires the natural and built environment is considered when formulating proposals.

A voluntary environmental assessment is typically undertaken in accordance with EIA guidance as a commitment to good practice. All parties stand to benefit from such an approach. The applicant can demonstrate the nature of any likely effects, their significance and appropriate mitigation measures, which in turn will aid the LPA and consultees’ understanding of the proposals. This means the LPA can be satisfied that they are able to make a robust and defendable decision.

Designing out risk

Before the commencement of environmental assessment, a key challenge lies in how to provide as accurate an assessment as possible, given that in most cases the detailed design has yet to be confirmed.

This is a frequently the case because the contractor responsible for the build will prepare the detailed design, but the construction contract is typically awarded only after planning permission is granted: a regular catch-22 situation.

The following options are typically considered:

  1. Prepare an outline planning application using the “Rochdale Envelope” setting minimum and maximum design parameters.
  2. Use an “off-the-shelf” design for a full planning application.
  3. Prepare a detailed design (typically undertaken with a contractor on board).

Option 3 would enable a more accurate and robust environmental appraisal, but at greatest economic risk to the client in the event planning permission is not.

Option 1 would enable the greatest degree of flexibility for final design at the reserved matters stage, the trade-off being that the environmental assessment needs to consider the extreme limits of aspects of potential effects.

This can increase uncertainty and anxiety for the decision maker and stakeholders which, in turn, increases risk of permission being refused.

Furthermore, should outline planning permission be granted, a detailed design via reserved matters would be subject to EIA consideration once again (if screened, scoped and assessed as EIA development) to comply with the 2008 amendment to the EIA Regulations for subsequent applications.

It is important for the correct balance to be made and this will depend on the nature of the development and the sensitivity of the receiving environment.

Option 2 offers a more widely-accepted balance of robust environmental assessment against programme and economic risk, and is the most frequently chosen path.

However, any significant post-consent changes to the design may require a new planning application accompanied by an appropriately revised environmental statement. This is not a prospect developers welcome.

Aiding understanding

Many infrastructure assets are for national rather than directly local benefit and they are subject to great scrutiny by those whose backyards will be affected.

Often the reported perception is that environmental assessment is too heavily weighted in favour of effects on the natural and physical environment rather than effects on people. The feeling that birds and fish are seen as more important than people is not uncommon among local communities seeking more comfort and understanding of electricity infrastructure proposals.

While legislation such as the Habitats Directive add another biodiversity layer to the assessment approach, potential “people effects” retain their importance. Indeed, the assessment of potential construction and operation noise, landscape and views, transport, air quality and electric and magnetic field effects are predominately included as people-based assessments.

Perhaps the key is to highlight more effectively that “people effects” are of paramount importance. Simple improvements, such as including references to “people” or grouping relevant environmental topic areas under the heading “the human environment”, may help.

The use of a more empathetic rather than a systematic tone, especially in the conclusions section and the non-technical summary (NTS), can also be helpful. This can assist in ensuring that the NTS is considered an important document from the outset, rather than what can be perceived as a hasty afterthought.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Bobby Clayton works for The Environment Partnership

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