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Out-Law Analysis 2 min. read

Urgent steps needed to connect new power sources to South African grid

The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) has announced its intention to exempt solar power projects from environmental authorisations, in light of the country’s current energy crisis.

It is more evident than ever that urgent steps need to be taken by the state to expedite the connecting of new power sources to the national power grid, after South Africans endured months of intense load-shedding. In reaction, the DFFE announced measures to streamline Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes and expedite environmental authorisation (EA) applications for solar power infrastructure.

EIAs and basic assessments are excessively time-consuming and take approximately 300 days and 147 days to complete respectively. These timeframes could be even longer if amendments to the EIA or additional rounds of public comments are required. Lengthy timeframes, compounded by slow processing of submitted EA applications, frustrate development and investment by the private sector.

Previous DFFE efforts to expedite power projects

Since 2014, the DFFE has identified and gazetted 11 renewable energy development zones important for the development of large-scale wind and solar PV facilities as well as five electricity grid infrastructure (EGI) corridors. The department has also published a generic environmental management programme for grid and substation development and expansion and implemented Schedule 2 of the 2014 Infrastructure Development Act 23, which requires gazetted strategic infrastructure projects to be processed within 57 days.

Solar projects

The DFFE aims to publish two notices for public comment on the proposed measures to simplify the EIA process and processing of EA applications for solar power facilities later this month. In order for a proposed solar project to be exempt from the EA requirement, the proposed project will need to be registered with the DFFE for compliance monitoring purposes.

To register a development with the DFFE, developers will need to appoint an environmental assessment practitioner (EAP) – and other select specialists such as agricultural, terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity and cultural heritage and palaeontology – and confirm the environmental sensitivity rating of the site through inspection by the various specialists. The EAP will need to prepare a site sensitivity verification report and submit an environmental management programme prepared by the EAP and additional specialists.

Proposed solar projects will need to be located within an identified ‘low’ or ‘medium’ environmental sensitivity site. The identification of ‘very high’, ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ environmental sensitivity areas will take place through the implementation of a web-based screening tool. The public will be notified of the registration of developments in the national gazette.

Infrastructure including powerlines and substations

In July, the DFFE also gazetted the adoption of the standard for the development and expansion of powerlines and substations within identified geographical areas, and the exclusion of this infrastructure from the requirement to obtain an EA. Powerline and substation developments that comply with this standard will not require an EA for select activities. Developments must still be located in areas of ‘low’ to ‘medium’ environmental sensitivity based on the web-based screening tool – or in one of the EGI corridors.

Challenges for the future

The DFFE hopes its latest efforts will cut the environmental approval timeframe to less than 60 days. Despite this, its plan to cut through red tape for solar power plants to assist with plugging more power into the national grid has been met with mixed reactions. The DFFE’s proposed measures are a fraction of the cumulative steps needed to address the current power crisis and it remains to be seen whether these measures will be effective.

The task of connecting new energy sources to the national grid will require various players from the private and public sectors to work closely together. The DFFE, along with other governmental departments, will need to co-operate effectively to streamline all permitting processes. A strong political will is necessary to ensure policies and regulations are effectively implemented and that processing timeframes are complied with. Finally, private sector players must remain agile and adaptable to a rapidly changing regulatory landscape.

Co-written by Sarah Burford of Pinsent Masons.

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