The UK Planning Inspectorate Office gave its final approval for the 350MW Cleve Hill Solar Park in Kent to be developed at the end of May. The UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma has given the green light for Britain’s largest solar farm to be built. He said the decision was not made lightly but expressed his belief that the project will be a world leader in solar and power storage.
When completed the subsidy-free renewables park is expected to reach a capacity of 350MW which will be achieved by installing 880,000 solar panels, some as tall as buses, across 364 hectares (900 acres) of farmland in the Kent countryside at a cost of in the region of £450m. The solar farm will be able to generate enough clean electricity to power 91,000 homes and could include one of the world’s largest energy storage systems.
According to Engadget a technology blog, the park was considered to be a Nationally Significant Infrastructure because its capacity exceeded 50MW, meaning that it had to be subjected to an extensive application including public hearings.
The controversial project which was three years in the planning has been dogged by fierce criticism by many local people and has divided green groups. Greenpeace, the RSPB, and the countryside charity CPRE are against the plan believing that it will industrialise the countryside and that it might harm an adjacent wildlife site. However, Friends of the Earth have offered qualified support, on the grounds that the current intensively farmed land was bad for wildlife anyway.
Speaking on behalf of Friends of the Earth, Mike Child said:
“No-one wants to see damage to local habitats, but this is not some lovely, untouched meadow. Changing the use of the site from intensive agriculture will reduce the high level of chemicals currently harming insects and wildlife – but we have to hold the developers to account”.
The countryside charity, CPRE fears that the proposed battery system could cause fires and explosions which has been known to happen in other countries around the world. The developers, Wirsol Energy and Hive Energy are confident that it will be safe. There are many measures that can be put in place to ensure safety such as adequate ventilation. They claim that the project will be one of the lowest-cost power generators in the UK and that it will bring local councils £1m every year that the scheme is running. At this point in time, the project is expected to be constructed one mile north-east of Faversham close to the village of Graveney.
A spokeswoman for the project said the developers had responded and carefully considered the concerns over the scale of the project’s battery storage ambitions. Everything had been looked at “in great detail” during the examination process with the planning inspectorate. She went on to say that safety considerations had been discussed “at great length” with the supply chain, the Health and Safety Executive and Kent Fire and Rescue Service.
Cleve Hill has submitted plans to ensure the preservation of native woodland and scrub within the bounds of the site. They plan to host a habitat management area of more than 138 hectares which will include a new bat roost. The planning will also include footpaths for ramblers, and a buffer zone of at least 63 metres between the solar park and the Saxon Shore Way.
Cleve Hill spokeswoman Emily Marshall told The Independent:
“The solar park will deliver a 65 percent increase in biodiversity on the intensively farmed site by including open grassland and meadow areas, hedgerows and woodland”.
Environmentalists want the developers to offer free rooftop solar panels to local people who have been protesting against the solar farm and in particular the giant energy storage unit.
Developers hope to begin building Cleve Hill solar farm from early 2021 and to begin generating clean energy from 2023.
The developers believe the project could help cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 68,000 tonnes a year which is not an insignificant contribution in helping the UK reach its net zero goal by 2050.
Solar energy has produced record levels of clean electricity in recent weeks reaching new highs of 9.68GW in April this year and helping the UK energy system to generate electricity for the longest stretch without coal-fired power since the Industrial Revolution.
The renewables industry thinks the UK’s solar power capacity could rise to 27GW by 2030 as a result of the UK government dropping the block which prevented solar farms and onshore wind projects from competing in subsidy contract auctions.
At the same time there has been a boom in battery projects which could mean the electricity generated by solar panels during the day could help to keep lights on at night too, helping to cut carbon emissions and domestic energy bills.
Renewable energy is the vital element in the UK’s plans to build a carbon neutral economy by 2050 and end its contribution to the climate crisis. It could potentially also play a big part in boosting economic growth after the Coronavirus pandemic.
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