New standards will fast-track permitting for clean energy projects in South Africa

A solar and battery storage facility in South Africa
Scatec's Kenhardt solar and battery storage plant in South Africa. Picture: Scatec

Recently published standards for solar PV and battery storage systems demonstrate South Africa’s commitment to the roll-out of renewable energy technologies while simultaneously protecting environmentally sensitive areas, says Margo-Ann Werner, an environmental law expert at Pinsent Masons.

The country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment has published norms and standards applicable to solar and battery projects in areas of low or medium environmental sensitivity. Under the new rules, these developments may no longer need environmental authorisations.

The department also recently published notices for public comment aimed at exempting transmission and distribution projects, including substations, from requiring environmental approvals.

This is “encouraging evidence” that regulators are intent on facilitating renewable energy projects and addressing the country’s severe transmission and distribution constraints, which limit the scope for new energy developments, Werner says.

“The finalisation of these norms and standards contribute to the department’s attempts to streamline permitting processes and lead time for renewable energy facility developments as part of the efforts to combat South Africa’s energy crisis.”

The new standards for solar and battery facilities seek to vastly reduce processing times. They prescribe the qualifying criteria a solar or storage project must meet to be exempt from applying for an environmental permit, and set out a simplified process for registering the facility prior to commencing with development work.

Previously, applications for environmental authorisation could take several months as they required specialist assessments and public participation, among other steps.

Now, the department must issue a registration certificate within 10 days of receipt of the application, if the project meets the qualifying criteria.

Developers will still be required to launch a consultation process, though the timeframes are now less stringent.

According to Sarah Burford, an environmental law expert at Pinsent Masons: “The language specifically used in this norm implies that, so long as any listed activity can be qualified as ‘necessary’ for the development of solar PV, the activity may be exempt from the requirement of an environmental authorisation.”

However, excluding a proposed activity from the environmental authorisation requirement does not necessarily give the project the green light. To be exempt, the area in which the development or expansion is planned must be considered as a “low” or “medium” according to the environmental sensitivity rating national screening tool.

The entire South African landscape has been assessed at a high level by the department, which categorises it into varying biodiversity sensitivity ratings. Land is considered to be of “very high”, “high”, “medium”, or “low” sensitivity. This information has been collated into a national screening tool.

The pre-identified sensitivity must be verified in-person by the independent environmental assessment practitioner appointed by the developer.

Various environmental themes must be included within this verification exercise, including biodiversity and agriculture. Should the land still be classed as “very high” or “high” sensitivity, the rating can be disputed further by way of specialist reports, confirming the “medium” or “low” biodiversity sensitivity in that area.


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