By Katherine Hutchinson
Discussion around the highly contentious Cleve Hill solar park has gone relatively quiet since the development received legal approval in late spring this year. At the end of May the application for the solar park received consent from Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Alok Sharma. Following this, hopes for a legal challenge to the decision were scuppered when Swale Borough Council announced that it would be too costly and it would be unlikely that courts would rule favourably towards those opposing the proposition. This decision left many local residents feeling that they had little power over the future of their area. Acres of natural landscape are set to be transformed into a 900-acre sea of silicon, with each panel standing at 13 feet high.
Plan and aerial view of Cleve Hill site showing its relationship to Faversham Creek and the Swale Estuary.
Developers behind the solar park, Hive Energy Ltd and Wirsol Energy Ltd, have put forward a number of benefits they claim the solar park will bring to the local area. These include an investment of £27.25 million over the next 25 years, as well as employment opportunities. They have stated that the electricity generated at the site will be enough to power more than 91,000 homes, which will play an important part in the UK’s ability to reach its target of cutting its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.
Here is a quick reminder about why the development is so controversial, just in case you didn’t already know:
The region proposed for the development is a vital hub for biodiversity. An estimated 390-plus species reside in the area, including protected birds such as the skylark, lapwing, marsh harrier and Brent geese.
The solar park would be the biggest of its kind in the UK at two and a half miles long, and would include 880,000 solar panels, meaning the rural marsh and farmland area would become an industrialised landscape.
Before plans for the solar park were approved, the Environment Agency had intended for the Graveney Marshes area to revert to salt marsh within the next 20 years. Salt marshes play a crucial role in reducing CO2 levels as they act as carbon sinks, a very necessary natural aspect of achieving carbon neutrality.
Serious concerns have been raised about the safety of the 700MW battery storage (one of the world’s largest) facility included within the site. Lithium-ion batteries can catch fire, and these fires often spread very quickly. The wet marshland in the area is not conducive to fire spreading. However, when lithium-ion batteries explode gases like hydrogen, highly flammable, and lithium hydroxide, extremely toxic, can be released as byproducts. Due to these risks, other solar parks of this size have been built in desert zones, especially in areas with low population densities – pretty much the opposite to Graveney Marshes.
Ever since the legal challenge mounted by Swale Borough Council against the development failed, some campaigners have shifted their efforts towards mitigating some of the worst impacts of the development. Some local residents are hoping they will get a say in the park’s working hours, noise levels, its appearance and how it will be secured. There are still numerous unanswered questions about the project’s future, and the government’s approval decision does not mean that it will definitely go ahead. The project is entirely unsubsidised, which is likely to be an important factor in the Secretary of State’s decision to allow it to go ahead. With the impact Covid-19 has had on the economy, there is the potential that some investors may be less comfortable about financing the development in future. National infrastructure projects at this scale are also regularly delayed by years and during this time the original plans can alter significantly.
In the meantime, one of the ways in which campaigners are hoping to prevent the development wiping out the entire area from community use, is through campaigns for a cycleway to run through the solar farm. This would connect Faversham, Seasalter and Whitstable. Currently, the only National Cycle Route connecting the towns uses narrow country lanes, which can be dangerous for cyclists.
The idea for the cycle route was first put forward two years ago. However, back then there was still hope that the development would be stopped in its tracks, and so any proposals that appeared to be working with the developer’s plans received little support. Obviously for those who are still hoping for some twist of fate that stops the project entirely, a cycle path will be of little comfort.
Boris Johnson recently gave a speech in which he described his support for wind energy, stating that he wants the UK to become the ‘’Saudi Arabia of wind power’’. He has called for a green industrial revolution, and declared his hope that by 2030 offshore wind energy will power every home in the UK. In order to achieve this, £160 million will be invested in the manufacturing of the next generation of wind turbines.
This push towards wind leading the development of the UK’s green energy sector raises questions about the necessity of solar parks being built at the scale seen in Cleve Hill, considering the massive impact it will have on the local community and environment. In recent months, wind power costs have fallen dramatically. It is now anticipated that as early as 2023, wind farms will be generating electricity at a cheaper rate than gas-fired power stations. Up until last year, renewable energy had not been expected to become so low cost until 2030.
One example of this drive towards wind energy is the recent approval of the world’s largest wind park, which will be built off the UK’s east coast. This development recently came a step closer to beginning construction. The project will be built in three phases, the first two of which have received financial agreement, and all of which are set to be completed by 2026. Each phase will have the capacity of 1,200MW, and, combined, they will provide enough energy to power 6 million homes.
Britain’s journey towards a green economic future is still arguably in its early stages. As the economy develops in this direction, much care is needed to ensure that a carbon-neutral energy sector is not achieved at the cost of the ecological destruction of Britain’s vital remaining areas of biodiversity. Opposition to Cleve Hill has never been towards the benefits it will bring in green energy generation, but rather towards the clumsy and destructive ways these benefits will be achieved. Environmentally focused groups including the Swale Green party and Kent Wildlife Trust oppose the development, despite being avid proponents of renewable energy production in other forms. There is disagreement amongst experts in the photovoltaic energy sector as to whether Cleve Hill will be the first of many large-scale solar projects across the country. Currently, most solar parks are much smaller, and it appears that Cleve Hill is an exception, and not the start of a new trend. This has left many local residents feeling as though their home is being used as the test site for a very large and potentially destructive solar experiment.
The area around Cleve Hill currently, from above.
Visualisation of how the area may look after the development is complete.
Images with permission from The Faversham Society, created by Jim Bennet