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Planning burden ‘enormous’ as hydrogen project plans soar
 Pic: Federico Beccari on Unsplash

30 Nov 2022 / environment Print

Planning burdens are 'enormous' for hydrogen

Burges Salmon has published a data-led research report exploring ways to support the consent and permission process for the anticipated growth in low-carbon hydrogen infrastructure projects in Britain.

It finds that planning permission can be one of the chief brakes on the progress of hydrogen projects, with perceptions by the public and local authorities causing delays, as well as a lack of cooperation among scheme constituent bodies, and a lack of confidence in future demand. 

The current average timespan for receiving permission is 20 months.

Hydrogen’s role

Net Zero, the British Government’s commitment to offset all greenhouse gas production by 2050, will drive the role and use of hydrogen in the energy mix. 

Although hydrogen has been used as an industrial gas for decades, low-carbon hydrogen production is still nascent.

The report says that two forms will dominate future production – green hydrogen produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity; and blue hydrogen, which is created by converting natural gas into hydrogen and CO2.

Green hydrogen projects make up 85% of the projects in respondents’ development pipelines.

Challenge for regulators

Multiple hydrogen projects are expected to shortly seek consent for planning permission and environmental permits, in addition to considering how to satisfy health-and-safety requirements, the firm has said.

This poses a potential challenge for regulators and stakeholders who will not necessarily be familiar with hydrogen, the significant role it can play, and its characteristics.

With timing a concern, the most sought-after changes are:

  • A full framework of legislation,
  • Policy, guidance and safety,
  • Public education on the benefits of hydrogen, and
  • A reduction in the risk of legal challenges.

Legal challenges

Project developers see the risk of legal challenge as a realistic possibility, especially for those that are publicly or politically contentious, Burges Salmon adds.

Later-stage challenges, which occur after consent for a project has been granted, are more often driven by tactical opposition to development than by obvious errors in the planning process, the report finds.

On average, they add around a year to a project’s development process, even if the challenge is not successful.

Almost half (45%) of respondents say they want to reduce the opportunities for legal challenges to permissions.

Later-stage challenges could be discouraged without diminishing due process, the report suggests.

It adds that a national target for hydrogen production and infrastructure would help move arguments away from local stakeholders and on to a national level, thus reducing the scope for later stage challenges.

Planning burden ‘enormous’

Burges Salmon has surveyed hydrogen and planning specialists, distribution networks and public-sector representatives for the report.

The report finds that the burden on British planning teams is enormous.

“They must handle everything from roof extensions to new energy and public infrastructure projects, despite not being typically familiar with all aspects of hydrogen production and distribution safety,” the report says.

Teams are tasked with knowing which technical issues devolve to health-and-safety regulators; and which issues have legitimate land-use considerations regarding where developments should be located or avoided. 

Country-wide standard

A country-wide hydrogen standard should prescribe the basic health-and-safety requirements for hydrogen projects and significantly streamline the process, the report says.

Standards guidance to inform policy and planning, on matters such as safety, distance and noise, are recommended. Committees already working on hydrogen-project standards need to quickly gain speed, the report adds.

Just under half of respondents advocated a public-education exercise to build support for hydrogen.

Burges Salmon advises on the hydrogen cycle, and its lawyers sit on the executive of Britain’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association, and were part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Hydrogen Task Force for standards and regulation.

Patrick Robinson (the firm’s hydrogen-projects planning specialist) comments: “If Britain’s hydrogen goals are to be achieved, they must be accompanied by a programme of education and awareness-raising at every point in the energy ecosystem, from developers to regulators and the public.”

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