By Richard Belfield
The recommendations from the Cleve Hill Planning Inspectors are due by May and will then go to the new Secretary of State for Business, Alok Sharma for a final decision. It is impossible to guess what he will say and there are few clues from his voting record on environmental matters. So far, he has voted both for and against measures to prevent climate change, for and against financial incentives for low carbon emission electricity generation methods and for and against greater regulation of fracking to extract shale gas. He was a remainer, but is now a passionate Brexiteer, a touching display of loyalty which has helped catapult him into the Cabinet.
Regardless of what the Inspectors recommend, there are two developments which he needs to consider: the real intentions of the companies behind the scheme and recent events in Arizona, USA.
SELL BY DATE
The site is a joint partnership between two companies, Wirsol Limited and Hive Energy Limited. Both companies are global players in the solar energy market.
The objectors wrote to the planning inspectors last November, pointing out that one of the developers, Wirsol was late filing their UK accounts. Their concern was whether this indicated that the company was in financial trouble. This is not the case. Although the company registered a loss of £1.8 million last year, compared to a profit of £3.4 million the year before, it is still cash and asset rich. The loss was largely generated by the payment of £6 million in dividends, two thirds of which went to the parent, DH Verwaltungs GmbH in Germany.
Ultimately the group is owned by Dietmar Hopp, a German entrepreneur personally worth an estimated $16 billion.
However, the latest UK accounts (which were filed just after Christmas) make very interesting reading.
In their application form the developers said they would “construct, operate and maintain” the Cleve Hill solar installation. The company accounts tell a very different story.
Wirsol’s accounts say the “principal activity of the group and the company is to design and build solar energy parks for resale.” Nowhere in the accounts does it say that Wirsol will make an exception for Cleve Hill. Instead, it refers to the company’s 2019 Financial Plan which is for the “ongoing acquisition, funding, build and sale of the UK solar parks.”
Above: Proposed new battery array (yellow), substation (blue) and surrounding bund (green). The areas of solar panels are labelled alphabetically A to Z.
This is a crucial issue. Cleve Hill is a massive environmental disaster in the making. The basic problem is that the lithium ion batteries they want to use burst into flames. There is nothing that can be done to stop this happening. It’s a flaw in the technology. Once this happens, they produce what’s called thermal runaway. The fire generates temperatures of 700 degrees centigrade and more. It then spreads very quickly. Once it does, it generates huge clouds of hydrogen fluoride, one of the world’s most toxic gases. The only way to stop the fire is with water but this just produces more gas and copious amounts of acid, which will eat through whatever steel and concrete is being used to house the batteries. The gas will go whichever way the wind blows killing and maiming everything it meets.
The key issue is clear: who is going to meet the multibillion-pound cost of the disaster? If Wirsol sells, then whoever buys it will have to also cover the liability. As a previous issue of the Eye pointed out, there may well be no appetite by any insurance company, no matter how big, to insure a solar plant which will at some time burst into flames. Insurers like to sell policies for things which are not likely to happen. They do not insure things which are – at some time – going to require them to get out a cheque book, particularly when their hand will get tired before they can finally stop adding noughts.
The fact that Wirsol’s accounts indicate their plan will be to sell the plant, the opposite of what they said in their original application, does not inspire confidence.
BURNING ISSUES IN ARIZONA
A recent explosion and lithium ion battery fire in Arizona, USA put eight firefighters and a police officer in hospital The official report by Commissioner Sandra Kennedy concludes that utility scale lithium ion batteries are “not prudent and create unacceptable risks.”
This was not the first lithium ion battery fire on her patch. Her report quotes firefighters who had to deal with a similar local battery fire in 2012. This noted that the flames were 50 to 75 feet long and were fed “by flammable liquids coming from the cabinets.”
Her report has a chilling note for Cleve Hill. She notes that it is “anticipated” that batteries will fail. And when they fail, they tend to burst into flames. She notes that a fire can occur “easily” in a small lithium ion battery facility of just 2MW. She goes on, “a similar event at a very large lithium ion battery facility would have “very severe and potentially catastrophic consequences.” By very large she means a facility of “250MW+”. The current recommendation is that all lithium ion battery developments be put on hold. If it was built tomorrow, the proposed Cleve Hill solar installation would be nearly three times this at 700MW, making it the world’s biggest such battery array.
If the fire gets a grip, Kent firefighters do not stand a chance.