Government moves to streamline consenting for renewable energy generation

  • Legal update

    03 May 2023

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National direction (including national policy statements and national environmental standards) support planning and consenting decision making under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

Current national direction for renewable energy was developed before New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets were incorporated into law. The implication is that the planning and consenting framework for renewable energy is not currently fit for purpose and does not adequately support the required rate of development for renewable energy infrastructure to meet New Zealand’s climate change commitments, including:

  • Its aspiration of 100% renewable energy by 2030; and 
  • An emissions reduction target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions (except biogenic methane) by 2050.

Those in the energy sector will be familiar with the challenges that the existing direction has created. Common challenges being policy in the current national direction given less weight than other more directive policy tools (for example, in relation to visual amenity effects), and unclear policy in the national direction on how to manage interactions with issues such as outstanding natural landscape and the relationship of Māori with their taonga. 

The government has now proposed a number of changes to the relevant national direction to address these issues and directly encourage an increase in renewable energy in line with New Zealand’s climate change commitments

The proposals are set out in the Ministry for the Environment’s (MfE) Strengthening national direction on renewable electricity generation and electricity transmission consultation document (Consultation Document), and include: 

  • Amending the existing National Policy Statement for Renewable Electricity Generation (Renewable Electricity NPS) and National Policy Statement for Electricity Transmission (Electricity Transmission NPS) to provide efficient and certain consenting processes that are environmentally sustainable; 
  • Amending the existing National Environmental Standard for Electricity Transmission Activities (Electricity Transmission NES) to improve workability and enable routine upgrading and maintenance of the electricity transmission network; 
  • Developing a new National Environmental Standard on Renewable Electricity Generation (Proposed Renewable Electricity NES) that will focus on small and community scale wind and solar generation projects and upgrading and repowering existing wind and solar generation; and
  • Developing non-statutory planning guidance to assist with the implementation of the proposed national direction.

These proposals are intended to streamline consenting processes for renewable energy and electricity transmission under the RMA, by providing clearer policy direction. This may have the effect of reducing processing hurdles as well as timeframes and costs. Distinct from the standard consenting route under the RMA, we note that a new ‘fast-track’ consenting pathway under the resource management reform bills (which is broadly based on the COVID-19 Recovery (Fast-Track Consenting) Act 2020 may also be available to consent some projects at speed. 

The government has signalled that the proposals are a priority. While it intends for the resource management reform bills to be passed in 2023, it has acknowledged that significant investment in renewable energy and electricity transmission projects needs to occur under the current RMA framework for around 7-10 years before the new system becomes operative. The above proposals are intended to ensure the relevant national direction is fit for purpose and influences consenting of renewable electricity projects during this transition period. 

We note that the above proposals follow recent consultation by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) on a streamlined consenting pathway for feasibility testing of offshore energy projects, beyond New Zealand’s territorial sea and the scope of the RMA.

We discuss the proposed changes to the planning framework for both onshore and offshore renewable energy development in more detail below. 

Amending the existing Renewable Energy NPS and Electricity Transmission NPS to provide efficient and certain consenting processes that are environmentally sustainable

Proposed amendments to the existing Renewable Energy NPS and Electricity Transmission NPS have been released alongside the Consultation Document as a matter of priority.

The amendments are intended to strengthen and recognise the national significance of renewable energy generation and electricity transmission in meeting New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets. The amendments are focussed on new wind and solar energy generation and do not amend the policy approach for reconsenting of existing hydro-generation. Addressing consenting issues for hydro-generation was considered more appropriate through the proposed resource management approach to freshwater allocation.

An example of the proposed amendments includes a requirement for local authorities to recognise and provide for a significant increase in renewable electricity generation in a timely manner when making decisions on resource consent applications for renewable energy generation. The directive nature of the amendment is intended to reduce the scope for discretion and inconsistent interpretations in resource consenting decisions.

To ensure a sustainable approach to consenting remains, it is proposed that:

  • Development in areas with ‘significant environmental values’ (i.e. areas with natural character in the coastal environment, outstanding natural features and landscapes, significant natural areas, and areas with historic heritage, significance to Māori, and wāhi tapu) will be subject to a gateway test. The gateway test requires the development to have a functional or operational need to locate in that area. Practicable alternatives may need to be considered and an effects management hierarchy will apply to avoid, minimise, remedy, offset, or compensate effects.  
  • Development in areas that do not have significant environment values will need to avoid, remedy, or mitigate adverse effects (including local amenity values) to the extent practicable.

To fast track implementation of the proposed changes, the government is considering whether some of the objectives and policies in the Renewable Energy NPS and Electricity NPS should be directly inserted into plans without using the standard plan change process. Circumventing the standard plan change process would be much faster and would ensure that the objectives and standards are implemented before the transition to the new resource management system.

It is intended that amendments to the two existing policy statements will come into force in 2023.

Amending the existing Electricity Transmission NES to improve workability and enable routine upgrading and maintenance of the electricity transmission network

The Electricity Transmission NES provides a nationally consistent set of rules and standards for the operation, maintenance, upgrading, relocation, and removal of existing transmission lines.

A review of the Electricity Transmission NES found that it did not enable a streamlined consenting approach for more significant structural changes to the transmission network, or for projects in sensitive areas.

Proposed amendments are intended to make the framework more enabling for maintenance and upgrade activities where the effects of the changes are limited to visual amenity effects. The amendments are also intended to align the Electricity NES with updated standards and definitions and make other minor alterations to improve workability.

These proposals are intended to be progressed later in 2023 and brought into effect next year. 

Developing a Renewable Energy NES that will focus on small and community scale wind and solar generation projects and upgrading and repowering existing wind and solar generation

A new Renewable Energy NES is proposed to include rules and standards for different types of small and community scale wind and solar generation including rules for roof mounted wind turbines and solar generation, free standing small scale wind turbines and solar generation, and community scale renewable electricity generation activities.

The Renewable Energy NES is also intended to enable the upgrade and repowering of existing wind and solar generation, by developing national standards for those projects. This would specifically provide for minor, intermediate and major upgrades and repowering activities.  

There is also a proposed option for the Renewable Energy NES to include a nationally consistent activity status for new large-scale wind and solar PV generation to address inconsistencies at a regional level.

An exposure draft of the Renewable Energy NES is intended to be released later in 2023 and come into effect next year. 

Developing non-statutory planning guidance to assist with implementation of the proposed national direction

The guidance is intended to support developers and decision makers to plan for renewable energy projects, including how to assess environmental effects.  

Non-statutory planning guidance can be considered as a relevant “other matter” when assessing resource consent applications under the RMA, but this is unlikely to have a material impact on consenting decisions for renewable electricity generation when considered against directive policies in national direction and local plans.

The government sees this option as complementary to the proposed changes to national direction.

Streamlining consenting for offshore energy proposals

There is currently no specific regulatory regime for offshore energy development in New Zealand.  Instead, the governing legislation is the existing consenting regimes under the RMA out to 12 nautical miles offshore, and the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act) from 12 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles offshore.  

The Government has identified that a key challenge for offshore consenting under the existing regulatory regime is a lack of information about the offshore environment and the effects of new technologies which may be employed there.  

To address this barrier, the Government has proposed a permit system for offshore energy feasibility activities. MBIE’s proposals for this system were published in December 2022.

MBIE’s preferred option is a system in which developers could apply for permits to undertake feasibility studies for offshore energy in specific areas. It is proposed that those developers would then receive a sole first right to apply for later consents to construct and operate offshore energy infrastructure (under the RMA, EEZ Act or other legislation) in those areas. Information gathered during the feasibility process will assist developers during later consent application process.

MBIE intends to consult on further elements of required regulatory settings such as how best to manage the construction, operation, and decommissioning phases of offshore renewable infrastructure later this year.

Have your say and make a submission

Submissions on the Consultation Document are open now and close on 1 June 2023. We encourage those who are affected by the proposals to make a submission and provide their views to MBIE and MfE.

If you have any questions about the proposed changes and how they will impact you and your interests, or if you would like our assistance to prepare a submission on the proposals in the Consultation Document, please get in touch with one of our experts.  

This article was co-authored by Henry Sullivan and Amy Dresser, Solicitors in our Environment team.