European countries are planning massive investments in renewable energy, which will mean that many more transmission lines will be needed to transport the energy produced. This is essential for reducing carbon emissions, but without careful planning, transmission lines can create a range of risks for biodiversity. The Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) was launched in 2009 as a neutral platform, enabling Transmission System Operators (TSOs) and NGOs from across Europe to come together as equal partners. The RGI promotes transparent, environmentally sensitive grid development to enable the further steady growth of renewable energy and the energy transition. The RGI’s work also covers social issues (such as consultation), but this case study focuses on the environmental side, where the RGI members have first agreed on vital principles, and then moved on to implementing these on the ground, through projects that have successfully shown ways to minimise adverse impacts on biodiversity. The RGI has eight TSO partners and eight NGO partners; all have equal voting rights. The TSOs include Elia (Belgium), RTE (France), 50Hertz (Germany) and TenneT (Germany and the Netherlands). The NGOs include BirdLife Europe, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, from the UK), and WWF International.
The RGI’s work to mainstream biodiversity into the energy industry is in line with Article 6(b) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which requires that parties “Integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.” NBSAPs by European countries could reflect the work of the RGI in various ways, for example:
- Mainstreaming biodiversity into the energy sector supports Aichi Strategic Goal A, to “Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society.”
- The RGI’s work on planning for grid expansion supports Aichi Target 2 on integrating biodiversity values into planning.
- By reducing the harm to threatened bird species, the RGI contributes to Aichi Target 12 on the conservation status of threatened species.
Based on the EU Renewable Energy Directive, renewable energy is expected to provide about 30-35% of the EU’s electricity by 2020, and then grow further to meet a target to reduce emissions in all industrialised countries by 80-95% by 2050. An expanded grid will therefore be vital to transmit electricity from remote generation sites, integrating renewable energy with consumption and storage. However, if not routed, planned and constructed correctly, grid lines can destroy or fragment habitats, and harm birds through collisions and electrocutions. Bird impacts and nesting can also damage the power line infrastructure itself. Part of the challenge is to show that Europe can, and must, get the grid infrastructure it needs while complying with existing EU nature protection requirements. For example, in 2004 the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention) recognised that a significant number of bird species were suffering as a result of electricity transmission facilities; that this threat was increasing due to the continuing construction of these facilities; and this could lead to severe impacts on populations and species (including globally threatened species). The bird families in the highest risk categories include storks, pelicans, raptors and owls.
The RGI focuses on constructive dialogue and building trust between the energy industry, civil society, policy makers and regulators. The RGI has found ways to develop better plans and projects that implement good practice and reduce conflicts between stakeholders. Key actions and initiatives under the RGI environmental work include:
- The European Grid Declaration on Electricity Network Development and Nature Conservation in Europe was published in 2011. This detailed agreement commits more than 30 signatories to a set of principles on combining Europes grid needs with nature conservation objectives and legislation. Additional material has since been agreed, including on how to reduce bird collisions.
- The EU-funded BESTGRID project aimed to put the ambitions of the European Grid Declaration into practice, including speeding up permission procedures by proactively addressing or even surpassing environmental protection standards. â€¢ The RGI feeds into the Ten Year Network Development Plan (TYNDP) of the European Network of Transmission System Operators (an umbrella body of TSOs from 35 countries), to make this more transparent and environmentally-friendly.
- Communication tools include position papers, an online database of best practices (for example, practical ways to reduce environmental impacts of power lines), and workshops bringing together civil society, industry, academia and politicians to discuss topics such as underground cables, offshore grids and environmental protection.
- The â€œGood Practice of the Year award honours innovative work in grid development. its categories include Environmental Protection.
It is not unusual for partnership initiatives to face early challenges in building trust among partners. In this case, TSOs feared that being too open too soon might disclose confidential information, or raise excessive concerns of environmental risks that could, in practice, be avoided through careful mitigation measures. There was also an initial reluctance from NGOs to collaborate with industries, for fear of losing their independence. This led to challenges such as obtaining sufficiently accurate maps of future plans for power lines, to compare with maps showing the distribution of bird species that are most vulnerable to collision risk. To address these issues, important early steps were finding common ground, building trust, understanding each other’s priorities, and taking time to listen and learn from what works and what does not. The crucial, highly valuable role of the RGI was to provide a neutral, independent platform for constructive dialogue, where TSOs and NGOs are equal partners. Many European grid operators understand and support biodiversity protection objectives and legislation. In addition, they seek more public acceptance for their projects, so it makes sense to reach out to stakeholder groups such as BirdLife, which have strong public support. The key messages from NGOs to the TSO members included that they offered innovative and uncontroversial ways for the industry to implement existing EU regulations on biodiversity protection. All of this helped to build the relationships. More work is needed, especially to spread good practices to smaller operators, so that they too implement relevant EU policies. Equally important will be working with policy makers, to help them to understand that protecting nature can be compatible with massive investment in renewable energy production and transmission.
Significant progress has been achieved in mainstreaming biodiversity protection into grid development. Following agreement on how to do this, as set out in the European Grid Declaration, the RGI partners moved on to implementing these principles in practical projects, such as BESTGRID. Through this project, BirdLife International and other NGO partners contributed to grid design and gave feedback to TSOs on measures taken in five jointly developed pilot projects. This is expected to lead to improved outcomes for biodiversity, though it will be essential to monitor these on the ground (e.g. number of bird collisions). An example of the results of BESTGRID comes from the pilot site in Germany, where TenneT and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU, BirdLife Partner in Germany), cooperated to address the risk that new power lines could segment forest habitats. They visited the mountain region, identified areas particularly important for conservation, and highlighted options to develop power line corridors in ways that would integrate and connect otherwise disconnected habitats. The results of work with the TYNDP included a revised social and environmental indicator: the NGO partners successfully pushed for the 2014 TYNDP to report on the number of kilometres of new power lines that might be in protected areas. The discussions facilitated by the RGI have enabled the NGOs and industry partners to gain a stronger, shared understanding of the importance of enabling the EU grid to develop and expand (in order to tackle climate change and thus support biodiversity conservation), while also appreciating the need – and practical options – for working together on responsible, biodiversity-friendly grid development.