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Italy: Approval and EIA process for RE power plants simplified

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published on 17th November 2021

 

With the Decreto Semplificazioni Bis (Act No. 108 of 29 July 2021), the Italian legislator aims to simplify both the procedure for the issuance of approvals for the construction of RE power plants and for conducting the Environmental Impact Assessment to be completed in parallel with the approval process. This should reduce the average duration of the approval process to an ambitious 250 days instead of the approximately 1,200 days that it takes today.

  

In 2020, renewables accounted for 20 per cent of total energy consumption in Italy, thus exceeding by 3 percentage points the renewable energy target of 17 per cent set by the EU's first RE directive – the so-called RED I, Directive 2009/28/EC. The Italian market has thus confirmed its attractiveness to international investors and companies from the renewable energy sector.


However, in order to meet the higher targets of the new RED II, Directive 2018/2001/EU, which provides for the share of energy from renewable sources of 30 per cent for Italy, about 70 GW of new RES capacity needs to be installed, which corresponds to about 7 GW per year. In 2020, however, only around 0.8 GW of new capacity was installed, also due to bureaucratic resistance and obstacles that impeded the construction of large-scale power plants in particular.


In order to achieve the RE targets set by the EU and to actually advance the energy transition, which is generally considered necessary, the Italian legislator has started to streamline the approval processes, in particular with the aim of simplifying the issuance of approvals for large-scale power plants.


This summer the regulations of the so-called Second Simplification Decree (Decreto Semplificazioni Bis) from the Law Decree No. 77 dated 31 May 2021 were finally approved and implemented by virtue of the Law No. 108 of 29 July 2021. These new regulations are intended in particular to help achieve the objectives set out in the Recovery Plan for Energy Transition and the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC).
The new regulations primarily limit the applicability of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as well as the responsibilities of the Ministry of Culture, whose competencies may include landscape protection in certain circumstances.


In the procedure for the issuance of an Autorizzazione Unica (Unified Approval) for the construction of a RE power plant on a land plot subject to special landscape protection, the opinion of the Ministry of Culture may still be necessary and required; however, the Ministry must actually express its opinion within the deadlines envisaged by the law and participate in the parallel approval procedure. If this is not the case, the authority responsible for issuing the Autorizzazione Unica may continue the approval process and issue the approval, while the Ministry of Culture would be deprived of the possibility of challenging or questioning the approval.
This is an extremely harsh measure because the Ministry of Culture has often used the instrument of appeal trying to prevent the implementation of projects in protected landscape areas.


Apart from the previously mentioned restrictions, the approval procedures per se have also been simplified. Projects planned on industrial or commercial areas with a capacity of up to 20 MW that are to be connected to the medium-voltage grid are now eligible for approval via the so-called PAS (procedura autorizzativa semplificata), a simplified approval process. The PAS also applies to RE power plants with the above mentioned features located in landfills (including those closed or rehabilitated) and quarries that can no longer be used and for which the competent authority has certified the completion of ecological rehabilitation and restoration measures in compliance with the applicable regional regulations.


As regards the Environmental Impact Assessment, the previously applicable threshold above which the preparation of an EIA was required has been raised from 1 MW to 10 MW for PV power plants. A prerequisite for this is that the applicant encloses a self-declaration stating that it will not erect the power plant in the regions classified as „particularly sensitive areas”.


For RE power plants with a capacity of up to 10 MW, this simplification applies to both the approval and the EIA process, while for larger power plants of up to 20 MW, only the approval process has been simplified. However, the condition that these projects must concern RE power plants, all of which must be connected to the medium-voltage grid, could limit the scope and practical applicability of the simplifications introduced.


While the EIA is usually a regional matter, the Decreto Semplificazioni Bis now stipulates that the EIA for PV power plants with a capacity of more than 10 MW is the responsibility of the central government, as was already the case for wind turbines of more than 30 MW. Conversely, this means that the EIA of PV power plants with a capacity of between 1 and 10 MW (apart from projects in commercial or industrial areas, see above) will continue to be subject to the regional regulations. The spirit and purpose of this centralisation is to harmonise the principles for the assessment of projects and to circumvent the local obstacles that exist in the regions and municipalities.


As regards maintenance operations, it will be possible to carry out non-substantial interventions on the basis of a simple CILA (comunicazione inizio lavori asseverata, a kind of certified notice of commencement of work). However, this will be possible only on condition that (i) the physical dimensions of the power plant, (ii) the volume of the structures, and (iii) the impact on the environment caused by the RE power plant and the corresponding connecting structures do not change.


A preferential treatment is now also provided again for projects in the case of which the use of agrivoltaics is planned. The principle applicable since 2011 that RE projects on agricultural land are not eligible for support tariffs has been overturned for agrivoltaic projects. These projects are now eligible for funding again for the electricity fed into the grid, provided that the systems installed can monitor and document the impact of the RE components on the different crops, water savings, agricultural productivity and continuity in the management of the plants.


Last, but not least the EIA process itself has also been streamlined. For RE projects covered by the Recovery Plan and PNIEC, for example, it has been stipulated that a central commission, composed of experts and responsible for the assessment of all Recovery Fund or PNIEC projects, will manage the EIA process. Also the deadlines for conducting the EIA have been changed in order to speed up the process.


According to statements by the Minister of the Environment, Roberto Cingolani, this should lead to breaking the bureaucratic shackles for 3 GW of renewable capacity under development, which the supervisory authorities are blocking invoking the impact on the landscape despite a positive environmental impact assessment, and thus to making that capacity available for the approval process. In addition, the government hopes to speed up the average duration of the approval process from the current 1,200 days to around 250 days.

 

 

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