Yesterday, the Government announced its proposed package of national direction tools to strengthen Aotearoa's planning framework to provide for and enable renewable energy generation and electricity transmission.
It has been over a decade since existing national direction was implemented to support and enable renewable electricity infrastructure and electricity transmission – which was well before New Zealand set its targets to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and to reduce all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to net zero by 2050. These new proposals therefore come at a pivotal time to support our transition to a low-emissions economy, by enabling renewable energy generation and electricity transmission projects to be consented and built at the scale and rate needed to achieve New Zealand's renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission targets.
The consultation documents here discuss and seek feedback on several matters including the content of proposed new National Policy Statements for Renewable Electricity Generation and for Electricity Transmission. Feedback – which is open until 1 June 2023 – will be critical to ensure any changes are fit for purpose and do not have unintended consequences.
The key changes proposed are:
Amendment of the existing National Policy Statements for Renewable Electricity Generation and Electricity Transmission: these seek to provide a consenting process that is more efficient and certain while also being environmentally sustainable.
Amendment of the existing National Environmental Standard for Electricity Transmission Activities: this seeks to improve workability and better enable routine upgrading and maintenance of the electricity transmission network.
Development of a new National Environmental Standard on Renewable Electricity Generation: this seeks to focus on small and community-scale wind and solar generation projects and upgrading and repowering existing wind and solar generation.
Development of supporting non-statutory planning guidance: this is intended to assist with the effective, efficient and consistent implementation of the proposed national direction.
Amendment of the existing national policy statements
The proposed new National Policy Statements for Renewable Electricity Generation and for Electricity Transmission seek to recognise and provide for the national significance of renewable energy generation and electricity transmission.
Several objectives and policies are proposed which will change the consenting framework for these activities. In particular:
Development in "areas with significant environment values"1 will be subject to a gateway test – which will include a functional or operational need to locate in that area, and an effects management hierarchy (to avoid, minimise, remedy, offset or compensate effects) – which will require consideration of practicable alternatives. This gateway test has been used in other national policy2 and it is unclear how effectively it will work, where supporting case law is still developing.
In areas that do not have significant environment values, the proposed new national policy statements seek to provide for renewable energy generation and electricity transmission activities while avoiding, remedying, or mitigating adverse effects, including local amenity values, to the extent practicable. There is also proposed acknowledgement that local amenity values differ across people, with some seeing either an increase or decrease in amenity values from development. While important to recognise that not all effects may be able to be avoided, remedied or mitigated, the use of "to the extent practicable" may raise questions around the consideration of alternatives (ie sites, routes or methods) in some instances.
The Government is considering requiring the objectives and policies in the proposed national policy statements to be directly inserted into plans and policy statements without using the standard plan-making process.3 This would reduce any time lag for local authorities to implement the amended national policy statements, and ensure it is in place during the transition to the proposed new resource management system. The final national policy statements are also intended to be incorporated into the National Planning Framework (as part of the proposed resource management reform).
New and amended national environmental standards
The Government is seeking to develop a new national environmental standard to enable the upgrade and repowering of existing wind and solar generation and develop new national standards for small and community scale onshore wind and solar PV generation projects.
Subject to feedback received, it may also seek to broaden the scope to also provide nationally consistent rules for new larger-scale wind and solar PV generation activities. For example, by providing restricted discretionary activity status with targeted matters of discretion to cover all relevant environmental effects regardless of location. This could directly address inconsistencies that developers face across the country when developing these types of projects and could provide greater certainty for investment.
In addition, the Government is seeking to improve the workability and scope of the existing National Environmental Standard for Electricity Transmission Activities. It seeks to enable activities with mainly visual effects, align with updated standards and definitions, and propose other minor alterations to definitions to improve workability.
Determination of the sequencing and progression of any new or amended national environmental standards is still being considered. This may be through the Resource Management Act, the new National Planning Framework (as part of the resource management reform), or both.
This guidance is intended to support developers and decision makers around planning for and considering renewable energy projects, including how to assess environmental effects. This guidance could be considered an "other relevant matter" under the RMA in due course but would not have any specific statutory weight.
Timeframes and next steps
Feedback on the consultation documents is open until 1 June 2023.
The Government considers the two new national policy statements will be progressed promptly so that they come into force this year. The changes to existing or development of new national environmental standards is intended to be progressed later in 2023 (as a further exposure draft) and come into effect after 2023.
While strengthening national direction is not a "quick fix" to the challenges involved in increasing renewable electricity generation towards the Government’s 2030 target, this consultation provides a positive step in that direction.
If you have any questions or would like any assistance in preparing feedback, please get in touch with one of our experts below.
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