The government is seeking environmental licenses in less time to accelerate renewable energy

The majority of renewable energy projects experiencing delays in La Guajira are wind energy.

The majority of renewable energy projects experiencing delays in La Guajira are wind energy.

Photo: Courtesy IndiBaz

On February 21, Energy Silesia, a subsidiary of the Argos Colombia group, announced that it was considering selling the Acacia and Camellia wind projects, in La Guajira, as a result of delays in prior consultation processes with local communities. Approval or amendment of environmental licenses. A similar thing happened with Enel at the Windbushish wind farm, which halted construction in May 2023.

These projects are part of 17 renewable energy projects in that administration, of which, according to the Ministry of Minerals and Energy, only two are within the planned schedule. Others have an average progress of less than 30%, all outside of the times they planned to go into service. Added to this are those that will begin the licensing and construction process in the coming years, which number more than 60 according to figures from the Mining and Energy Planning Unit.

Given the multiple delays reported by companies, as Minminas itself is aware, the “just energy transition”, one of the banners of Gustavo Petro’s government, is “in danger of failure”. For this reason, at the end of 2023, that portfolio presented Bill No. 343 before the House of Representatives, an initiative that will begin to be discussed in the coming weeks. What it seeks is measures to “overcome energy poverty and a just energy transition in La Guajira Province.”

Among the proposals are to address environmental licenses in a “prioritized and expedited” manner to accelerate the implementation of renewable energy projects; Training of community advisors, in order to resolve delays in prior consultations; Granting environmental licenses in stages to accelerate projects affecting a large part of the region, such as the Collectora interconnection line, on which the operation of most of the proposed wind farms in the region depends.

However, the draft law sparked reactions from several sectors, confirming that reducing the approval period for environmental licenses would be inappropriate, and that it does not solve major problems that delay the entry into operation of projects, and even ignores a statement issued by the Attorney General’s Office in 2020.

Why were renewable energy projects delayed in La Guajira?

For several years, La Guajira has positioned itself as the department with the country’s greatest potential for generating energy from renewable sources. Strong winds blowing from the northern coast and high solar radiation in one of the warmest regions of Colombia are the main sources of this potential.

Despite its great ability to generate energy, only 14.4% of its rural population (half of the province) has access to electricity, people suffer from a deficit in the quality and quantity of housing, and 30% of its population does not have access to clean services. Water, according to figures from the National Planning Department. Furthermore, the majority of the province is indigenous land, so any project wishing to be implemented there would need to be consulted with local communities.

The great vulnerability in which people find themselves and the lack of state presence, as Joanna Barney, director of the field of energy, environment and communities at the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indipaz) explains, leads to the fact that when companies come to build a project, communities demand “water, light and education” as compensation for Use of its lands. The researcher says: “All of these are rights that the state must respond to.”

In addition, the Wyu communities are divided into more than 30 clans, which in turn are divided into families, so there is no unified leadership when negotiating in advance consultations. As a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) published in November 2023 notes, neither the Ministry of the Interior nor the indigenous affairs secretariats in the administration and municipalities have clarity about who the representatives of communities are.

When companies come to negotiate with communities, says Luis Guillermo Baquero, director of the Más Guajira Roundtable of the National Association of Industrialists (ANDI), they find that “there are up to five people in each community accredited to negotiate.” Baquero also points out that “private advisers come to the negotiations, and they do not defend the interests of the local communities.”

In light of this, the draft law proposes training advisors belonging to the same sects to participate in the negotiation processes. To achieve this, it is necessary to “go directly to the local communities, listen to them and understand who really wants to exercise this representation,” warns Cristian Moreno, professor of energy efficiency and renewable energies from La Costa University.

Moreno, who published a 2023 study on obstacles to energy projects in La Guajira, adds that the social and leadership aspect is one of the problems, but not the most serious. He points out in his research that “the lack of transparency in policies and decision-making processes is the biggest obstacle, along with social problems and environmental permits.”

To speed up these processes, the draft law proposes to reduce the period in which environmental authorities have to approve or reject an environmental license from 120 to 90 days. This, in principle, could speed up the station’s entry into operation, but the matter entails many problems, according to some sources consulted by El Espectador.

Fast environmental permits?

The department has two environmental bodies responsible for processing licenses for renewable energy projects. One is the National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA), responsible for projects that propose to generate more than 100 MW. The other company is the Laguajira Regional Autonomous Company (Corpuguajira), which is responsible for projects with a capacity ranging from 10 to 100 MW.

Responsibility for the delay in the environmental licensing procedure announced by Celsia on February 21 lies with Corpoguajira. In 2023, EDP Renewables, responsible for two of the largest wind farms to be built in the country, reported delays in the processing of environmental permits by the ANLA. These delays occurred with the current limit, which is 120 days.

Cut it down to 90 days, says Rosa Peña, a senior attorney at the Inter-American Environmental Defense Association (AIDA), unaware that neither entity has the administrative capacity to process permits in such a short period of time. “Analysis in terms of prevention and environmental precaution, by officials with a large workload, will lead to regional risks, in this case in La Guajira, to make decisions without the necessary technical support,” says Peña.

Accordingly, El Espectador requested an interview with ANLA, but the entity only agreed to provide written answers. They confirm that the Authority, during the year 2023, “provided a timely response to 98.68% of environmental license applications.” For this, they have a total of 43 officials at the national level, who must respond to licenses for energy projects, while another team responds to mining projects, exploitation of hydrocarbons, production of pesticides or construction of infrastructure for the agricultural industry, among others.

The entity says that if the time period is changed, “the necessary institutional adjustments will be made to continue exercising the function with technical precision, timeliness and transparency.”

For IndiPaz’s Barney, time is not only an issue because of the number of officials, but also because of the environment authority’s ability to evaluate environmental impact studies submitted by companies. “In the past, projects related to feeding goats, which is one of the livelihoods of local communities, have been approved. If a Corpoguaguera or ANLA official does not have contact with the communities to find out about this, reducing the time needed to do so will make everything more complicated,” he points out.

Baquero believes that setting such a short deadline in Corboguaguira must be accompanied by “strengthening the administrative and technical capacities of the environmental authority.” He points out that without that, reducing the period to 90 days is “useless.”

But this will not be the only drawback of amending the environmental licensing rules in La Guajira. It is also proposed within the project that licenses be granted in stages for some works affecting a large portion of the land, such as the Collector 1 interconnection line, which will transmit the energy produced by the wind farms to the rest of the country. .

In 2020, after an investigation by IndiBaz entitled “The East Wind Brings Revolutions.” Multinationals and the Transition to Wind Energy in the Wayuu Province,” the Attorney General’s Office sent a request to several entities, including Minminas, ANLA, and Corboguajera, pointing out several problems with renewable energy projects in La Guajira.

One of these is that dividing projects into different construction phases is a mechanism “not only to separate the right of participation of the community concerned, but to avoid competition from the national environmental authority.”

For Barney, this would increase disputes with communities and “an environmental license may be granted, but if there is no social acceptance, the project begins construction, but it does not finish.” Baquero, of the National Investment Development Agency, adds that this would make the procedures “more complex” for companies, and that it would be more useful to envision “environmental licensing as a whole.”

The Public Prosecution then asked the relevant authorities to identify projects in which the projects were artificially divided to separate consultation processes, in order to suspend them. Now, Minminas is studying the possibility of splitting consultations to speed up the construction of large projects.

For this article, El Espectador sent out a questionnaire on February 14 to get a sense of Corboguaguera’s understanding of the project. We also tried to contact the Ministry of Minerals and Energy since last February 12 to find out its position on the doubts raised about its proposal. However, as of the close of this edition, no response has been obtained from either entity.

Other concerns about the project

One of the goals of the bill introduced by Minminas is to “overcome energy poverty” in La Guajira, taking into account the low levels of access enjoyed by rural residents.

Geraldine Izaguirre, a senior lawyer at AIDA, points out that there is no mechanism, neither in the bill nor in the planning of the generating stations, to ensure that a portion of the energy produced is directed “to guarantee this right to the residents of Las Vegas.” Guajira. The companies are committed to supplying power to the national interconnected system, but without the necessary infrastructure in the circuit, the power will go to other parts of the country.

This is the second time that Minminas has insisted on a significant part of the measures stipulated in the document: differential energy rates for management, financing of energy communities and granting permission to Ecopetrol to establish energy projects in this area.

*This text was produced with support from Climate Tracker in Latin America.

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