By Richard Belfield
The behaviour of the planning inspectors in the Cleve Hill solar farm inquiry gets more bizarre by the day. There has been a further delay. In early April they wrote to the developers (Wirsol Energy and Hive Energy) asking for more details about how they intend to use compulsory purchase orders to acquire the land, the exact uses of some of the plots and a detailed map of one area.
(The four main images in this article show the aftermath of the fire at the Balcombe solar farm sub station.)
The far more pressing issue is whether Wirsol should be allowed to build Cleve Hill at all. No one has ever built a solar and battery farm of this size before and there are already major safety concerns about the design. Later this year, Wirsol is being sued in the High Court “for gross negligence and reckless misconduct” over some much smaller solar parks they built and sold. At issue is whether they are capable of building solar farms which both work and are safe.
In May 2017, Wirsol sold 19 solar parks to Toucan Energy. Toucan is an unusual solar energy company. It raises money from local authorities, giving them a solid return. It then uses this cash to buy solar farms and sell the green electricity. It’s a good model and Toucan currently provides electricity to 150,000 homes.
Toucan is now suing Wirsol over the solar parks they bought from Wirsol. The Toucan claim is for £41 million. Wirsol denies the claim and is countersuing for £8.7 million.
The Toucan court documents show that problems began to emerge early on. The solar farms did not produce the electricity output which was claimed when Wirsol sold them. They would trip out and overheat leading to “a significant risk of fire.”
It is a basic principle of electricity safety that transformers and high voltage switching gear should operate in dry conditions. As anyone who watches murder whodunnit programmes on television, electricity and water are a fatal combination.
The Toucan claim outlines numerous examples of poor and shoddy workmanship where high voltage equipment was subject to “excessive humidity, water build up, condensation, leakage through the covers and moisture being sucked in from the outside”. On top of this, the Toucan suit claims that water was getting in from the cable pits below the substations, which contained water, though they should not. Most worryingly, the claim says the substations did not comply with the rules laid down by the International Electrotechnical Commission. The IEC has been going since 1906 and sets the standards for electricity production across the world.
Since Toucan bought the sites two serious accident reports have been submitted to the Health and Safety Executive. These are known as RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Under this 2013 act, anyone in a position of responsibility in a company must report “dangerous occurrences” to the HSE.
The shortage of adequate circuit breakers is a key element of the claim. Toucan claim that Wirsol used miniature circuit breakers, which were being forced to operate well above their rating “resulting in the risk of destructive failure.”
In practice, this means maintenance engineers have to operate behind safe perimeter zones and shut down the entire substation to carry out routine works.
The sales contract between Wirsol and Toucan stated that the solar stations should be good for twenty five years. One area of the claim is the use of marine plywood for the floors, which Wirsol claim is rot proof. If top quality marine plywood had been used and properly installed that would be true. In practice, Wirsol used a cheaper alternative which has a much shorter life. This will need replacing and Toucan’s lawyers argue this will be a costly exercise. The stations are so badly designed that the plywood can only be replaced by shutting down the operation, removing the equipment, replacing the plywood and then reassembling.
More importantly, the flash point of plywood is 280 degrees Celsius. Because of the contamination at the substations, a significant electrical spark could ignite the wood and, in particular, the laminates used to glue the layers of plywood together causing a fire.
The issue of fire is not a matter of legal jousting.
Just before 2pm in August 2018, there was an explosion and a rapid fire in one of the substations which Wirsol sold to Toucan. The CCTV footage is available on the Faversham Eye website. The fire brigade was on site within 17 minutes. At the time, Wirsol had a maintenance contract and it took 22 minutes for an engineer to arrive and isolate all the DC connectors and make it safe. The fire brigade stayed on site for 45 minutes.
This was a relatively small fire but currently Wirsol is the lead contractor for Cleve Hill, where fire is the main security concern.
This is the crucial issue. Cleve Hill is a massive environmental disaster in the making. The basic problem is that the lithium ion batteries they plan on using spontaneously burst into flames. It’s a by-product of the technology. Once this happens, they produce “thermal runaway,” 75 foot long horizontal flames making the fire spread very quickly. The fire also generates huge clouds of hydrogen fluoride, one of the world’s most toxic gases. The only way to extinguish the fire is with water but this just produces more gas and copious amounts of acid. This then eats 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.
Since the hearings last year, the world has changed and investors are now much more nervous.
Cleve Hill has an estimated cost of £450 - £500 million plus insurance.
As a solar farm alone, the returns for Cleve Hill are marginal, especially now when investors will be even more cautious than before. It only becomes profitable with the addition of the batteries. What became clear at the planning hearings was that the developers had not factored in the cost of insurance premiums against fire and the potential catastrophic loss of life, personal injury and property damage. Given the risks identified in previous Faversham Eyes, the annual premium will be many millions.
Before issuing a policy, any insurer will look at the worst case. Given the size of the proposed battery farm , if a fire takes hold it will takes days to extinguish. The release of poison gas and acid puts this on a par with a nuclear accident. The current annual premium for a US nuclear power station is $375 million. Even if the insurance premiums are a fraction of this, Cleve Hill is now a very high risk investment.
In the new Covid-19 world, finance for big projects like these has largely dried up. It will be very difficult for the two companies behind Cleve Hill – Wirsol Energy and Hive Energy – to raise the money needed. Back in 2018 their application said they had access to sufficient funding to carry out the project. They did not say where this funding would come from.
Wirsol is ultimately owned by a German software billionaire, Dietmar Hopp.
Though he could easily finance it himself, it is doubtful that he will. He has already shown that though he has deep pockets he has short arms. The latest Wirsol accounts released in January 2020 reveal that the UK company wanted to buy four relatively small sites, but had to abandon the project when its German parent failed to raise the money in time.
Hopps’s appetite for solar may well have diminished. Like many other companies, Wirsol in Germany has taken a huge loss (estimated at £50 million so far and ongoing) for its solar projects in Australia over the last two years.
Meanwhile, Wirsol in the UK has seen its profits decline from £3.8 million in 2016, to £2.8 million in 2017 and then a loss of £3.4 million in 2018. The 2018 loss includes a dividend payment of £1.5 million to Mark Hogan the other shareholder apart from Dietmar Hopp in Germany. Though the high court claim was filed during 2018, the potential cost is not included in the contingent liabilities in the accounts, which it should be. Two long term directors both left in February this year.
Dietmar Hopp is a deeply divisive figure back in Germany having poured millions into supporting his childhood footbal club, TSG Hoffenheim. Many German football fans believe this is a betrayal of their system where fans and communities own clubs, not billionaires.
A notoriously shy man, October will be a cruel month for him. German courts are sombre and low key, where lawyers are generally polite and well-mannered. British courts are very different. Dietmar Hopp will be shocked and horrified as his name is dragged through the bear pit that is the British legal system, with German news reporters – already hostile to him – no doubt relishing every detail.
Toucan claim Wirsol used miniature circuit breakers, which were being forced to operate well above their rating “resulting in the risk of destructive failure”
A 33,000 volt transformer in a room with no circuit breakers and a wooden floor covered in water
Charley Says No
Prince Charles has officially declined to help save Graveney marshes.
The Eye's own John Wellard wrote to the royal earlier this year, asking him to lend his voice to calls to stop the controversial Cleve Hill solar power station and battery farm destroying the environmentally important site.
A Clarence House aide replied: “His Royal Highness recognizes the strength of your feelings about this matter, but I regret that he is unable to become personally involved in the way that you ask.”
Five years ago, the publication of Charles' so-called 'black spider memos' showed he had lobbied the government at the highest level, petitioning ministers on subjects from the Iraq war to alternative therapies.
In 1990, his intervention helped save Faversham's Brogdale National Fruit Collections after governnent funding was pulled.
In 2007, Charles received the 10th annual Global Environmental Citizen Award from the Harvard Medical School, who said: “For decades the Prince of Wales has been a champion of the natural world...He has been a world leader in efforts to improve energy efficiency and in reducing the discharge of toxic substances on land, and into the air and the oceans".
The proposed lithium ion megabattery at the heart of the Cleve Hill scheme is more than five times larger than the current world's largest. The planned site is on a flood plain a few hundred metres from the sea. Around the globe, large-scale lithium ion batteries have caught fire, releasing highly toxic gases and corrosive pollutants into the enviroment.
The Prince of Wales' estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, is currently pushing plans to build 2,500 houses on Grade 1 and 2 agricultural land at Selling Road, South East of Faversham, just a few miles from the proposed solar power station.
Friends of the Earth continue to support the Cleve Hill solar plant. Contacted by the Faversham Eye they confirmed that their position remains one of qualified support.
“Given the pre-eminent issue of the Climate Emergency, the conclusion for the Friends of the Earth is inescapable: not to support the proposed solar farm would seem ridiculous. It would certainly leave us open to a charge of 'nimbyism'. We do not dismiss worries about safety. We advocate stringent monitoring of Cleve Hill's design and operation but weigh any remaining anxiety against the evidence of risk - which seems vanishingly small - and the need for action on the climate.”
The only changes they want are the panels at a different angle and a community fund.
Their statement includes the following:
“Battery storage projects already operate successfully and safely the world over and this one too must have the right health and safety procedures in place and rigorously followed once it is operational.”
This is simply not true. There are no health and safety procedures in place which can ever make a battery storage farm safe. The science is without dispute. A significant percentage of lithium ion batteries burst into flames producing clouds of toxic gas and acid.
After two fires, the last one which hospitalised eight firefighters and a police officer, the Arizona regulator has stopped all new solar battery storage units, saying they “are not prudent and create unacceptable risks”.
South Korea has 1253 solar storage units. Last year there were fires in 15 of them. The local regulator has started inspecting them. So far they have looked at about 60 percent and told the owners of the rest of them to switch them off.
There have been hundreds of other fires the world over.
The Federal Aviation Administration noted that before the travel lockdown there was a lithium ion fire on a plane every ten days.
A fire engulfs an energy storage system at a cement plant in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province/ Courtesy of North Chungcheong Province Fire Service Headquarters