Final decision on giant solar park due this week

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With the UK facing a continued energy supply challenge, Kent has found itself on the frontline with Cleve Hill near Faversham, with a controversial £500 million scheme opposed on health and safety and environmental grounds.

A final decision on the scheme from the government’s Planning Inspectorate is due this week.

When plans first emerged for Europe’s second largest solar power park at Graveney, near Faversham over two years ago, the scheme made national headlines and has attracted fierce local opposition.

Its emergence comes amid an ongoing energy crisis for the UK, with several national nuclear schemes recently cancelled, leaving only Hinkley Point in Somerset, which will not be operational until 2026, as the only major new reactor of its kind under development.

So, with a third of UK energy now reportedly coming from renewable sources in Britain, there has been renewed pressure on councils to consider locations for greener energy generation.

As far as the Kent solar scheme is concerned, developers of the Cleve Hill site, which include solar specialists Hive Energy, had argued its creation would help power over 110,000 homes. 

They have also asserted the solar park, costing a projected sum of at least £500 million, and set amid agricultural land, would help meet national energy targets, with its plans being considered by the Planning Inspectorate, which will issue a recommendation this week.

It has met with near unanimous major concern from residents’ campaign groups, the town and borough councils, Kent Wildlife Trust, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, and area MP Helen Whately.

The majority of initial fears initially centred on the huge scale of the scheme – originally measuring 492 hectares, or over 600 football pitches, featuring arrays of solar panels, some of which would be up to 3.9 metres, or the height of a double-decker bus). According to campaigners, this would cause irreparable damage to the local environment, though developers claimed that only 53% of the site would be covered in panels.

But even greater fears emerged over the health and safety surrounding plans for an advanced lithium-ion battery system (BESS) battery facility being proposed for the site. If approved, this would be the largest of its kind in the world, and feed into an existing National Grid power facility.

Significantly, the campaign group Graveney Rural Environment Action Team (Great), highlighted recent documented cases in the US of such batteries (on a far smaller scale to those near Faversham, catching fire, with devastating force.

It has been claimed, that should such a failure occur at Cleve Hill, which could generate up to 350MW of power, could trigger a nuclear level explosion just two miles from Faversham.

The campaign group believed the power station would destroy the habitat of over 300 species of wildlife, including protected species such as the marsh harrier, lapwing, skylark and Brent geese.

It added that the area of land (Graveney marshes), could be part of a Nature Recovery Network in Kent – to expand and connect wildlife sites, which it felt was a missing piece of the jigsaw in protecting sites along the North Kent coast.

Professor Sir David Melville, vice chairman of the Faversham Society, a renowned physicist who in his early career worked on the Apollo 11 moon landings), had researched the issue considerably.

He said: “We have done all that we can to put a lot of evidence forward on this and the case against the solar park is strong. But the outcome is in the balance – it could be 50/50.

 “There have been more accident reports emerging from America about the use of such batteries, from the Arizona State Regulator, which we have raised with the inspectorate. So this is just an opportunistic application, as it would have access to the National Grid. But this flies in the face of all the issues that have been raised over these systems.

“There’s a primary school just a mile away from the Cleve Hill site, and Faversham itself is just two miles down the road. If anything did happen to the battery, it would have the explosive power of two small nuclear bombs,” added Sir David, who said he hoped the Planning Inspectorate would strongly take into consideration the evidence that now exists surrounding the major safety concerns for such sites

Environmentally damaging

Faversham MP Helen Whately has opposed the solar park on environmental grounds.

She said: “The campaign to save Graveney Marshes has entered a crucial stage. A final decision is due to be made by the end of May, so campaign work will step up a gear over the next few months. I’ve been continuing to do all I can to oppose this development, working with the GREAT campaign (Graveney Rural Environment Action Team) and others to highlight the environmental damage this plant would inflict on a beautiful stretch of the North Kent Coast.

“I’ve urged the Business Secretary to reject the development on the basis that it will do more harm than good for the environment. Rather than covering this area with industrial solar panels, it could be turned back into coastal saltmarsh – locking away hundreds of tonnes of carbon and attracting even more wildlife. This opportunity could be lost forever if the development goes ahead. Let’s not waste this moment to create a better future for Graveney Marshes.”

The final decision was set to be made by Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark, who had served as the government’s Secretary of State for Business. But with the freshly elected administration under Boris Johnson, that task now falls to the newly appointed Alok Sharma, who will deliver a verdict this summer.

In response, Emily Marshall, spokesperson for the Cleve Hill Solar Park, believed it would have a number of benefits to the local area, beyond its power generation, including contributing towards achieving zero carbon emissions targets for the local authority.

She said: “If built, Cleve Hill will be able to generate up to 350MW of clean, renewable electricity able to power over 91,000 homes. The project won’t require any government subsidies and aims to be one of the lowest cost generators of electricity in the UK. It would also provide over £1 million of revenue to Swale and Kent Councils each year for the lifetime of the project.”

She added that developers have undertaken an environmental impact assessment of the project and, since 2017, have consulted with many stakeholders, the authorities of Swale, Kent and Canterbury and their communities to design the solar park in response to consultation feedback.

As a result, she said the park would deliver a 65% increase in biodiversity on the site, includes an area for habitat management, and provided a new pathway for walkers.

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