By Brian Pain
We have previously and extensively reported on the application by companies Wirsol and Hive Energy under the name of Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd to develop the Graveney saltmarshes into what would at the time be the largest solar array in the UK along with one of the largest lithium-ion battery energy storage systems (BESS) in the world. Both companies have previously involved in solar projects that later led to litigation with other stakeholders in the schemes (see online issues 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11).
To recap: almost 1,000 acres of the North Kent Marshes at Graveney, an area of international importance to wildlife (home to an estimated 390 species including protected birds such as the skylark, lapwing, marsh harrier and Brent Geese), will be converted into a vast solar array by this proposal. At the heart of the development will be the very controversial 700 MW BESS. Around 800,000 solar panels are to be installed in a densely packed east/west configuration. Each row of panels would be 24 metres across with just 30 cm gaps between them to allow water run-off. Each row of these panels would be up to a half a kilometre long with just a 2.5 m space between each row to allow maintenance. The panels will be mounted up to heights of over 4 metres. As a result of the near blanket coverage, the ground will receive practically no sunlight and so effectively die.
It is hard to imagine the vast, overwhelming sea of silicon that will be created, highly visible and totally destructive of what is at present a beautifully wild estuary landscape. Sir David Melville, a prominent local campaigner opposing the development explains that although solar panel projects are part of the UK’s transition to green energy, the evidence suggests that this project could actually pose a greater risk to the environment than previously realised, because the project covers an area of salt marsh. These are essential in any fight against climate change as they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and would be rendered useless by the development.
The BESS proposed for the site should be of major concern to Faversham, less than 2 miles away from Cleve Hill. The village of Graveney, and in particular its primary school, would be very close.
The system comprises of lithium-ion batteries stored in shipping containers and taking up an area similar in size to Faversham Recreation Ground with the energy equivalence of a small nuclear bomb. The problem is, as we have previously explained, lithium-ion batteries are prone to spontaneous combustion causing possible thermal runaway creating fires that are extremely difficult to extinguish as they burn without the presence of oxygen. Globally such fires are regularly reported and, as a consequence, all large such battery storage plants have previously been situated in desert areas well away from urban settlements. Certainly, this would be the first one built next to a town on an area prone to flooding.
In the event of a fire, an extremely toxic gas, hydrogen fluoride is released and in a system of that proposed at Cleve Hill, potentially in large quantities.
Dr Alistair Gould, senior partner in Faversham’s largest medical practice has written: “The toxicity of Hydrogen Fluoride goes easily and quickly through the skin and into the tissues of the body. There it damages the cells and causes them to malfunction. The gas, even at low levels, can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract. Breathing in hydrogen fluoride at high levels can cause death from irregular heartbeat or from fluid build-up in the lungs.
At lower levels breathing the gas can damage lung tissue. Eye exposure can cause prolonged or permanent defects, blindness or total destruction of the eye. People who survive may suffer ongoing chronic illness.
I am extremely concerned that the potential hazards of such a large BESS pose an unacceptable risk of death or long-term illness to my patients.”
In September 2020 a much smaller (20 MW as compared to Cleve Hill’s 700 MW) BESS in Liverpool suffered a battery fire which took firefighters over 11 hours to extinguish. Roads around the area had to be closed off and residents nearby were warned to keep their windows closed due to smoke from the incident. The results of an investigation into the causes of the fire are not publicly available.
Despite Cleve Hill Solar Park Limited’s assurances during the public enquiry into planning permission for this huge project that they were long term wholeheartedly committed to the project, not long after Alok Sharma the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy granted the developers a Development Consent Order (despite near unanimous opposition from both conservation bodies, Swale and Faversham Councils and local residents), the site was sold by Hive and Wirsol Energy netting them a presumably handsome profit.
The new owners are Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners. They promptly renamed the whole thing Project Fortress and have announced that they intend to start building work this year and have the development operational in 2023.
Quinbrook Investment Partners are reported to manage assets of more than £1.5 billion and already operate two large solar farms with associated battery storage. However, both these are safely located in remote parts of the Nevada Desert in the US.
It intends to be both the owner and operator of the Graveney scheme.
Company House filings by Quinbrook Investment Partners Limited show that in their financial year ending in December 2020 the company made a loss of £459,000 on a turnover of around £2,225,000.
As is depressingly common in such cases, this company operates as an advisory services company to Quinbrook Infrastructure (Jersey) Limited a company incorporated in tax haven Jersey and the ultimate owner of Project Fortress.
Perhaps the statement from the CPRE “Cleve Hill Solar Park: making money at the expense of the environment in the name of the environment” is particularly appropriate.
A Swale Borough Council spokesman said: “When the scheme was approved by the Secretary of State, several requirements were placed on the permission for the developer to undertake before the scheme could start on site. These have been ongoing and more submissions are required.”
We understand that amongst these requirements are the need to demonstrate that the site could operate safely to the satisfaction of the fire services. This should enable Swale to be particularly rigorous in their scrutiny of the developer’s proposals given the potential scale of the disaster a thermal runaway incident at Cleve Hill would cause.
Another potential problem Quinbrook will have is in obtaining insurance cover for this huge project utilising relatively new technology and located as it is near a large urban settlement In February 2021, the Marsh Commercial Insurance Newsletter discussing the problems associated with BESS projects said: “The insurance market for BESS has seen a reduced capacity as a consequence of some key insurers exiting the market or having a very narrow underwriting footprint This has ultimately led to increased premiums, higher policy excesses and sometimes difficulties in obtaining 100% cover for larger projects.”
There is still a little hope that this utterly irresponsible scheme with little or no benefit to the UK and certainly of huge disbenefit to the people of Faversham, will never be built.
It is utterly depressing that while this dangerous, damaging scheme is given permission to be built on one of our natural and beautiful marshes which acts naturally already as a carbon sink, the Government allows literally thousands of new houses to be built on surrounding green field sites with absolutely no requirement for solar panels to be integral to their design and gas central heating installed as standard.
POTENTIAL LETHAL GAS CLOUD ZONES Insurers are very nervous about open-ended liabilities with thousands of different claims which can go on for years. If the fire continues for more than an hour (which these fires often do) the further the cloud travels and the more expensive it becomes as lifelong injuries cost insurance companies far more than deaths. Once the gas drops and becomes acid, the long-term effect on local farmland will be catastrophic as it will take years to clean the soil.
It is perhaps worth remembering the disaster at Bhopal in India when a fertiliser plant owned by US company Union Carbide suffered catastrophic failure releasing tons of lethal gas killing at least 16,000 people and injuring over 500,000 others when it spread over the neighbouring city. Union Carbide executives based in America failed to attend the court in India to face criminal charges of neglect. Subsequently, Union Carbide was purchased by Dow Chemicals who claim that they have no responsibility for Union Carbide’s previous actions.