Particularity in Permitting

Compared with the U.S., Denmark has a shockingly simple permitting process for biomass heat and power facilities, undoubtedly a factor in its immense biomass energy consumption.
By Lisa Gibson | March 22, 2011

In some locations, permitting is a nightmarish rigmarole that can drag on for years before a project is finally ready for construction and operation. Permitting requirements for biomass power and thermal operations can vary by size, location, technology type and other factors, depending on the country—and sometimes the area within the country—where they’re being developed.

Denmark has set itself apart from the rest of the world, however, with its efforts to simplify the permitting process for renewable energy operations, as it works toward its goal of 30 percent renewables by 2020. Especially when compared with the U.S., the country’s biomass power and heat facility permitting processes are admirable and undoubtedly have made development easier, contributing to the fact that biomass accounts for about 70 percent of Danish renewable energy consumption. Utilization of biomass material for energy has more than quadrupled from 1980 to 2005, and is still growing.

“They’ve done a lot in Denmark to make [permitting] easy,” says Hans Christian Krarup, Danish country director for international consulting firm Golder Associates A/S. “It would be difficult to find another country where it’s easier.”

Perhaps the most important factor in the case of permitting is that developers don’t have to distribute permitting applications and analyses to multiple agencies. Instead, it’s all submitted at the local level to the municipality with jurisdiction over the chosen development site, which conducts a majority of the permit issuances. “In Denmark, you have one-stop shopping with all the permits,” Krarup says. “You just make the application directly to the municipality and they’ll forward it to the relevant parties.”

Krarup contributed to a 2008 study of noncost barriers to renewable energy growth in the European Union that found stakeholders in renewable sectors appreciated the one-stop shopping aspect of permitting in Denmark, saying it simplified and streamlined the process, making it move more swiftly.

US Complications

Most states in the U.S. have a much more complicated and involved process, highlighting another factor that sets it apart from Denmark’s: permitting requirements and processes vary significantly from state-to-state and often involve multiple agencies. While most large permits, such as air, must meet federal requirements, states are delegated to implement them and can enact more stringent requirements and thresholds than are dictated by federal laws.

In Oregon, an energy facililty siting permit is required for biomass power plants producing more than 25 megawatts (MW), whereas in Washington the threshold for that permit is 350 MW. The permit in Oregon comes from the Energy Facility Siting Council and in Washington is issued by the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, according to Golder Associates. Although the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council issues the certificate, it does not analyze the technical aspects of the project, as the group is made up of appointed citizens. “Being private citizens, they don’t work on evaluating the project per se,” says Chad Darby, Oregon-based senior consultant with Golder Associates. “The state [Department of Energy] has project officers who evaluate project applications and make recommendations to the council for approval or denial of the siting certificate.” In Oregon, the intent of the certificate is to look at everything the facility impacts, including air, water, noise, scenic views and other elements, numbering about 30 when all is said and done.

Similarly, some states require a state environmental impact analysis or assessment. Again, the environmental impact permit requirements vary greatly from state to state and some projects can trigger state or federal environmental programs, such as Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act or the National Environmental Protection Act. Without a state environmental act, Oregon, for instance, would not require such a permit or assessment, outside of the energy facility siting certification, Darby says.

U.S. biopower company Adage has alleviated some of the headaches that come with developing in different states by using a reference design intended specifically to fall under certain permitting requirements in the states the company has considered for development. Adage's 55-megawatt model will run on forest residues and employ best achievable control technologies (BACT) to ensure more ease in the permitting process, according to spokesman Tom DePonty. The company has permitted two projects: one in Hamilton County, Fla., and another in Mason County, Wash.Florida permitting was made simpler because the site already had an Environmental Resource Permit, which comes from the State Department of Environmental Protection, DePonty explains. The permit needed minor amendments, though, because of differences between the biopower facility and the operation that was originally granted the permit but didn’t develop there.

The air permit for Florida was also granted by the Department of Environmental Protection, which does not require a BACT analysis, DePonty says. “We meet the BACT Standards, but Florida doesn’t require BACT analysis in their permit,” he says.

In Washington, Adage received preliminary approval for an air permit from the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, and a land-use permit, regulated by SEPA. The latter includes an environmental assessment with 13 different areas of analysis including water quality, noise and traffic, DePonty says. At press time, Biomass Power & Thermal learned that the Washington project was canceled because of poor market conditions.

But the identical facility design will help Adage wade through the varying permitting requirements, making it simpler in comparison with companies developing different facilities in different states. “I wouldn’t disagree that it can be a complex process [in the U.S.],” DePonty says.

Static Standards

In contrast, Denmark’s permitting requirement framework for biomass power and heating plants is the same across the entire country and has been since the 1990s, when it began using biomass resources extensively, according to Finn Bertelsen, senior advisor for the Danish Energy Agency’s Division of Energy Supply and Renewable Energy. Small changes have, of course, come into play, but the principle of the permitting process has remained static. “In the 1990s, the Danish Energy Agency was informed of municipalities’ decisions and could evaluate,” he says. “But since about 2004, we don’t do that anymore.” The law on heat production controls district heating plants, while the law on electricity production controls those that generate electricity, he adds. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy divided into five regions and 98 municipalities, with governing bodies on the national, regional and municipal levels.

Biomass power facilities 25 MW or larger in Denmark will need air and water permits that come from a regional environmental protection center, permission from the Danish Energy Agency to supply clean power to the grid, and in most cases, permission from the municipality to deliver district heat to its local network, according to Bertelsen. Any biomass power plant with an output below 25 MW is regulated entirely on the local level, including air and water permits, as are all small-scale district heating plants. District heating delivers more than 60 percent of the heating needs in Denmark, 40 percent from biomass. All power plants also provide district heat, Bertelsen adds.

Power plants above 25 MW are also not required to submit an environmental and socio-economic impact analysis, although they do have to prove emission data, he says. “Bigger electricity-producing plants are on the market, so it’s a pure economic decision if you want to build that plant or not,” he says. Small district heating facilities are also not required to submit an environmental study.

Air and water permits for biomass facilities fall under an all-inclusive environmental permit required for all operations that pollute, whether renewable energy-related or as simple as an auto workshop, Krarup says. While Danish biomass plant water permits generally deal only with the quality of water discharged from the operations, U.S. water permits can relate to stormwater runoff and other issues, and the approving agencies also vary among states.

In Tiers

In keeping with the theme of complicated permitting requirements, the U.S. has a tiered, headache-inducing air permitting process that, to make matters even more confusing, is still being formulated. Emissions above a certain threshold trigger major source requirements, causing consternation with greenhouse gas emissions from biomass power plants. “Once you get into that major source permitting category, there’s a whole lot more you have to do in order to get your permit,” Darby says.

The magnitude or type of facility can categorize it under New Source Performance Standards—applying to specific new, modified or reconstructed facilities in a number of industries—or the Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules, which splice permitting requirements even further between solid waste incinerators and boilers. “Our system can be very confusing,” Darby says. “There are requirements coming from a wide variety of agencies.” In Denmark, air permitting for biomass power is not so fractured and the only differentiating factor is the 25 MW threshold, Krarup says. “There are standard parts of environmental law which are by now quite well-integrated for these effects,” he adds.

Of course, facilities in both countries need construction permits on the local level, which can also vary by location. In Denmark, larger plants and those that generate issues with transmission lines, noise or other factors for neighbors must go through a public hearing process, whereas in the U.S., the construction permitting process is almost always open to public input. Intricacies with building permits can encompass zoning and conditional-use factors, as well.

“The sense I get is that [Europe] has a much more holistic way of looking at pollution,” Darby says. “The European permitting process for industrial sources looks at whole life-cycle impacts, whereas we have a more fractured system where you’ve got to go to one agency group to get a water permit … then you go to another agency group to get an air permit and so on.”

While it could be argued that differences in permitting between Denmark and the U.S. are the result of contrasts in country size and government structure, Krarup says it could also stem from the countries' industrial backgrounds. “We are a small nation. We don’t have many raw minerals so we have to use other resources. And there’s no doubt Denmark is ahead in many areas of the renewable energy sector. It has benefited our industry that we have been open to [new technologies and options for clean energy].”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
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