By Richard Belfield
As soon as David Rose, the inspector for the Cleve Hill enquiry, was appointed it was an easy bet to see what the outcome would be. Before the hearings even began, both the Faversham Society and the Council for the Protection of Rural England challenged his appointment. They pointed out that he had a clear bias in favour of the development and therefore should never have been appointed.
They wrote to the government pointing out that he was the examiner of the London Array Inquiry in 2006/7 and had recommended that the transfer station be built. They pointed out that it was only because he cleared this first stage that the developers could go ahead with their plans for Cleve Hill.
They did not question his integrity, but pointed out that back in 2007 he said he did not consider Graveney Marshes to be “of sufficient importance to warrant protection from industrial development.” In other words, he had already made his mind up. If he turned down the Cleve Hill application, he would then have to question his original decision.
In September, the government responded to say that all inspectors have a code of conduct requiring them to be impartial. The Planning Inspectorate then added two more inspectors. According to the reply, this had nothing to do with the conflict of interest, but was “in response to the scale of written representations received and in recognition of the complexity of the issues raised.” The objectors say that one of the inspectors, Helen Cassini, appeared to play little part in the proceedings.
The report published last month confirmed the worst fears of the Faversham Society and CPRE.
Several local parties looked at challenging the report at judicial review, but again the game is rigged. The basic principle is that judges will not re-examine the merits of decisions made. Their only concern is whether the inspectors complied with procedures. These are not exactly rigorous.
The code of conduct for inspectors is only four pages long. Provided they turn up on time, are polite, listen to the evidence, don’t take a back hander, decide the case on its merits and are impartial (both of which are very much a subjective decision) they are pretty much free to do as they like.
The Code of Conduct does however have one clear provision. Inspectors “must not be fettered by pre-determined views.” The Planning Inspectorate should have complied with their own rules and chosen a different inspector.
It is not just about being impartial, but being seen to be impartial.
The key issue is battery safety, but the Inspectors largely dismiss this in just thirteen pages of a 460-page report. There are four times as many references to “marsh harriers” as there are to “battery safety.” Marsh harriers are important but the only threat to life here is to small animals and then only one at a time. Battery safety threatens the lives of thousands, everyone in Faversham and the surrounding area.
The bias of the Inspectors towards the developers is evident throughout this section.
The Inspectors say they are satisfied that the modelling used by the developers is “highly conservative and it provides clear demonstration that there would be no material threat to health at the nearest residential properties, or in the wider locality, in the event of fire.”
Apart from the assurances of the manufacturers, there is nothing to date which supports such a claim. There are dozens of scientific papers from independent institutions all over the world which show that lithium-ion fires are inevitable, they are notoriously difficult to put out and they produce huge quantities of lethal gases. There have been deaths, numerous product recalls, at least one 747 plane crash killing the crew as well as emergency landings by other large jets after fires on board.
Throughout the section on battery safety, the Inspectors skew everything in favour of the developers. The recent Arizona battery fire is crucial as local regulators have now stopped all new battery storage farms. To deal with this, the Inspectors cite a statement from Tesla, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries saying that a new, as yet unpublished safety standard, would have prevented this. Tesla provided no evidence to support this claim.
Tesla is currently under federal investigation in the United States for allegedly selling cars with faulty battery systems which could burst into flames. The investigators are looking at claims the company knew but sold the cars anyway. Tesla themselves are the perfect example of how difficult these fires are to extinguish. In October 2017 a Tesla crashed in Austria. Even though the firefighters thought they had stopped the fire, the battery kept reigniting, forcing them to quarantine the car for two days.
The Inspectors relied heavily on evidence from Leclanché, a Swiss manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries. The Inspectors acknowledged they were not independent, but described their “expertise.” This was an extraordinary claim. Their expert was a recent graduate, as opposed to the genuinely independent expert produced by the Faversham Society, who is a Professor of Physics, a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers of the USA.
The Inspectors accepted Leclanché’s claim that “all the fires had occurred during the construction phase” of battery storage systems. This lie was then carried through into the letter from the Secretary of State giving the go ahead.
Leclanché knew first hand that this was not true as they had a battery fire in the lobby of their headquarters in Switzerland in 2017. No doubt, this just slipped their mind.
The Inspectors rely heavily on the safety features of the Cleve Hill battery safety plan, concluding that the developers provided “a sound and enforceable basis of managing and mitigating safety risk and there is no compelling evidence to the contrary.”
It is difficult to imagine in what parallel universe this could be true. All these safety measures have been used before and failed.
There is a fundamental flaw in lithium-ion battery technology. A certain number will burst into flames. The bigger the battery, the bigger the fire. Cleve Hill promises to be the world’s biggest solar battery farm.
As one of the world’s leading experts on hydrogen fluoride gas, Ron Koopman told the Faversham Eye, “So far we have been very lucky. At some point, we are going to run out of luck.”
THE OUTLINE BATTERY SAFETY REPORT - Be afraid, be very afraid
Throughout their report, the Inspectors refer to the Cleve Hill Outline Battery Safety Management Plan as if this will solve the issues. The expectation is that this will be a detailed and comprehensive plan. In fact, it’s only eight pages long of which just over half is devoted to the actual business of preventing and managing fire.
The plan assumes that any fire will be small and easily contained. Of the many scenarios for the fire, that is the least likely. A recent lithium ion battery fire at a tiny facility in Arizona, USA put eight firefighters and a police officer in hospital. The Arizona battery farm was tiny, just 2MW, compared to the 700MW proposed at Cleve Hill.
The official report by local Commissioner, Sandra Kennedy, concluded that large scale lithium ion battery farms are “not prudent and create unacceptable risks.” She “anticipated” that these batteries will fail. Having had two lithium-ion batteries on her patch – and therefore knowing what she is talking about – she wrote that a fire at a lithium ion battery facility over 250MW would have “very severe and potentially catastrophic consequences.”
The Cleve Hill battery safety plan recommends a gap of ten feet between the battery containers. However, the Arizona case showed that once on fire, the batteries shot out horizontal flames, which travelled up to seventy-five feet. Laboratory experiments show the temperature of lithium-ion battery fires can quickly rise to 700 degrees centigrade. On top of which, once water is used to extinguish the fire, this produces large volumes of highly toxic gas and a pungent acid, which will quickly eat through the thin metal cages used to house the batteries.
To combat this, the plan proposes sprinklers and an external fire hydrant 100 metres away capable of pumping 30,000 gallons an hour for at least a couple of hours. This sounds a lot but it isn’t. A medium size warehouse fire can easily consume three times as much water and last much longer. Given the intensity of a battery fire, water consumption will be significantly higher. If the fire takes hold and spreads the current provision will just be enough to fight one small area for a short period of time.
This shabby document was collated by a company called Arcus Consultancy Services, though the company does not mention it on their website. The plan incorporates “input” from Xero Energy, another company which does not mention Cleve Hill as one of its projects and Leclanché.
Leclanché turned up at the inquiry as an independent expert witness. The plan describes them as “a world leading provider and manufacturer with over a hundred years of high quality energy storage solutions, principally based on lithium-ion cell technologies.” This is a bit of a miracle as the lithium-ion cell battery was not developed until 1985, with the first commercially produced batteries not being marketed until 1991. A claim typical of the developers who have constantly stretched the truth throughout.
Three pages of the Cleve Hill battery safety plan are a straight lift, cut and pasted from a report produced by Allianz Consulting, a management consultancy company. Though they are not fire specialists, the company is part of Allianz, the world’s largest insurance company. Their report therefore is rightly cautious. As insurers, they are all about assessing and managing risk.
In contrast, the Cleve Hill battery safety plan is underpinned by commercial considerations. It says that if there is a fire it “will be reduced to an acceptable level.” The Allianz report makes it clear that no one can make this claim as there is very limited data, what they call “knowledge gaps,” especially for large scale projects like Cleve Hill.
What is interesting are the parts of the Allianz report which the battery safety plan does not mention. In the plan, “thermal runaway” gets only a single passing mention. Allianz note, rather ominously, that “once thermal runaway starts, it is difficult to stop” as these fires are “intense.” The Allianz report also says that once a lithium-ion battery fire starts it can re-ignite again weeks after it appears to have been put out. This is caused by “stranded electrical energy” which remains trapped in the batteries ready to start the whole process of thermal
runaway all over again. Again, there is no mention of this in the battery plan.
Bizarrely, the battery safety plan only mentions carbon monoxide and describes hydrogen as a “flammable gas.” The Allianz report lists all the gases released - carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, benzene and toluene, describing them as “toxic,” a word missing from the battery safety plan which the developers submitted to the Inspectors.
When there is a fire – and given the number of batteries this is a statistical certainty – time will be crucial. A British company, Toucan Energy is currently suing Wirsol after buying nineteen solar farms from them. So far, Toucan have had two fires. The fire report shows that when one of the solar farms burst into flames, it took twenty two minutes for the Wirsol safety manager to arrive.
The Shock of the New
Both partners – Wirsol and Hive – are actively trying to sell their interest in Cleve Hill, that’s according to industry insiders who the Faversham Eye has spoken to over the last few months.
A sale will be difficult as this is not a good time to be trying to sell an undeveloped solar farm.
There are many obstacles in the way of a sale. Whoever ends up building Cleve Hill still has to reach agreement with Kent Fire and Rescue, the Health and Safety Executive, Swale Borough Council, Kent County Council and several other agencies before they can start. On the basis of what they have submitted so far, little of this is going to be easy and an agreement with the Kent Fire Brigade and the Health and Safety Executive may well be impossible.
There are much deeper problems, which also confront the developers and any potential purchaser. All the financial assumptions they used in their original calculations have changed – for the worse. The potential income is much lower than it was three years ago and the costs are now much higher.
The wholesale price of electricity has declined substantially since the Cleve Hill partnership first made their application. Post Covid-19, there will be substantial changes in people’s lifestyles and work patterns. Far more people will work from home, which will mean the demand for electricity will decline and with an abundance of supply this will be an ever stronger buyer’s market. Industry insiders anticipate that prices will continue to soften, driven down further by the expected recession, which will dominate the UK economy for the next two years. What also worries all electricity production companies is the chilling warning from the National Grid earlier this year. If demand drops substantially, solar farms and power plants will have to be turned off to avoid overloading the electricity grid. This is very bad news if your profit margins are already so tight you need to be operating 365 days a year.
Given the changes in the tariffs paid, electricity storage in the UK is no longer the financial bonanza it once promised to be. The accounts of two pure electricity storage companies examined by the Faversham Eye show that profits are now small, just enough to cover the cost of borrowing the money, with little left over.
The cost side does not look good for the developers either. As we come out of lockdown, the cost of borrowing money for projects like these has already gone up by half a per cent in the last few weeks. The project cost is said to be £450 - £500 million and this makes a big difference. The price of solar panels went up again last month. The market is dominated by the Chinese. They can already sell everything they produce, they do not need the English market, which is tiny compared with the Middle East and Africa. Post Brexit, with no international trade deals in place, the developers have little bargaining power. If the British government kicks Huawei out, as they are threatening to do, the Chinese may well retaliate by putting prices up or simply refusing to sell their panels here.
The attempted sale should come as no surprise, especially to the planning inspectors who looked at Cleve Hill and who naively proceeded on the basis that both companies were in for the long haul.
In their original application document Wirsol Energy and Hive Energy said they would “construct, operate and maintain” the Cleve Hill solar installation. To back up their claim Wirsol said they had built and operated 24 solar parks in the UK. At the time they wrote this, they had already sold 20 of them. They did then operate and maintain them for a while - until they were fired.
Wirsol’s annual accounts (filed earlier this year) say the “principal activity of the group and the company is to design and build solar energy parks for resale.” In other words, it was always the plan to sell.
There has been a lot of turmoil at Wirsol recently. Last year, Mark Hogan, the British founder of the company stripped out £1.5 million in dividends, on top of the £187,200 he took in salary and pension contribution – even though this meant the company then had to declare a loss of £1.8 for the year. Two directors left, Hogan is no longer a shareholder and the ownership of the business is now 100% owned by the German parent, Wirsol GmbH.
Wirsol may well have lost their appetite for solar power. Like many other big companies, they invested heavily in Australia and then took huge losses when the government changed the tariffs without warning.
In October this year, their competence as a constructor and operator will be examined in the High Court. If they lose the case, the costs will be upwards of £50 million. More importantly, their reputation will have taken a huge hit.
The other investor, Hive Energy is owned by a serial entrepreneur, Giles Redpath. According to its last accounts it only has six employees. Cleve Hill is far bigger than anything they have ever done before. They will either have to bring in a huge new management team or leave the operation and construction to Wirsol, which given their track record is not an attractive proposition. They are therefore prime candidates to sell, though the talk in the market is that Redpath is asking too high a price.
Still a long way to go
Despite all the self-congratulatory hoopla by the developers, Cleve Hill is nowhere near a done deal. As part of the Development Consent Order, the Inspectors imposed many conditions which the developers have to satisfy.
No serious work on the site can start until they are all agreed.
The key players here are Kent Fire and Rescue, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Swale Borough Council. Swale Borough Council and local councillors will inevitably consult with all the key local parties, including the Faversham Society, all the local councils, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and GREAT (the Graveney Rural Environment Action Team).
Kent Fire and Rescue, the Health and Safety Executive and Swale Borough Council all have to approve a new battery safety management plan. This may well be impossible. There have been hundreds of fires worldwide involving lithium-ion batteries. No one has ever built a lithium-ion battery farm on this scale before. If it gets a grip, which it could do long before the Fire Brigade arrives, it will burn for days, with a catastrophic loss of life and destruction to the nearby area. Solar battery farms should only be built where it is dry. Cleve Hill is a flood plain. The current outline battery safety plan is woefully inadequate, a hastily cobbled together cut and paste from other work, which fails to even acknowledge many of the key issues which will most concern Kent Fire and Rescue and the HSE. Letting it burn out is not an option as this would mean evacuating tens of thousands of people. The plan has to cover delivery of the batteries, the possibility of fire during construction and then the management of the site. Relationships here are not good, given the developer’s past behaviour. Wirsol constantly claimed in the media (supported by Friends of the Earth) that Kent Fire and Rescue was happy with their safety plan. This was untrue. Kent Fire and Rescue was never formally approached. All they ever said was they would look at the plan only if and when Cleve Hill got the green light. The developers knew this was the case, but told the lie anyway. Wirsol will also have problems convincing the HSE they are a competent constructor. Wirsol sold nineteen of their solar farms to a company called Toucan Energy, which sells electricity to local authorities. So far, there have been two serious incidents, where there was a serious threat to life, prompting reports what are known as RIDDOR reports to the HSE (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Toucan has submitted a claim, which comes to court in October, blaming Wirsol for these incidents (covered in Faversham Eye 9 and available on our website).
As well as fire safety, Swale Borough Council has to also agree the detailed written plans covering the design, the works, public right of way, fencing and means of enclosure, surface and foul water drainage, landscape and biodiversity management, construction environmental management, traffic management, noise management, operational management, the local skills supply chain and employment and the eventual decommissioning. The developers also have to submit a written scheme for archaeological investigation. If there is anything on the site of significant historical value, the developers will have to employ a competent person or organisation to investigate fully and then make sure everything is properly handled and preserved.
The Highway Authority has to agree to the detailed written plans for the public right of way, construction environmental management and traffic management and construction noise.
Natural England has to agree to the plan for landscape and biodiversity management. The developers will also have to provide a detailed survey to see if any protected species are present on the site or land likely to be affected by the development.
Kent County Council has to approve the plan for surface and foul water drainage and may well wish to be included in many of the other decisions.
After thirty five years, whoever owns the company at that time has to agree a plan with the Environment Agency to decommission the site and restore the flood defenses.
And finally, there is the tricky issue of insurance. Given the huge number of batteries on the site and the fact that it is going to be built on flood plain, there is a high statistical chance of a fire. Insurance brokers contacted by the Faversham Eye indicated that few insurers would be interested if there was a high certainty of having to make a pay-out. As one said, “we insure against things we think are unlikely to happen. We do not insure if we know that at some time we are going to have to get the big cheque book out.”
The developers assured the Inspectors that they would not start work without having insurance in place. Any insurance will have to be on a worst-case scenario - that there is a major fire, with substantial loss of life and widespread devastation to the local area. Though this is not listed in the statutory requirements by the Inspectors, both Kent County Council and Swale Borough Council will no doubt want to see the policy and check the small print before they give the project any final sign off.
The developers have five years, starting from this May to agree all this. Only then can they start work.