We recently detailed the threat posed by plans for the UK’s largest solar farm on the North Kent Marshes, near Faversham.
Then the plans covered 890 acres of Graveney, Nagden and Cleve Marshes – that figure has since expanded to 1,000 acres, to allow, according to developer Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd, for “expanded habitat management areas” dedicated to wildlife.
The increased acreage would also allow the developer to work with the Environment Agency on maintaining flood defences, the extension covering “the area where any maintenance might be needed”.
A second public consultation ended in July and drew more than 700 “pieces of feedback”, resulting in the anticipated application to the Planning Inspectorate for a Development Consent Order being delayed from August to October 31, 2018.
CPRE Kent is vehemently opposed to Cleve Hill Solar Park due to its scale, its position within the North Kent Marshes, which are internationally important for birds, and the drastic effect on the landscape.
“If I was to think of the worst possible place to put a solar farm, it would be here,” director Hilary Newport had said when the proposal was announced.
“We absolutely support the provision of renewable energy, but solar panels should be on roofs, not trashing landscapes in an astonishingly beautiful part of the North Kent Marshes.”
Dr Newport’s view strikes a chord in this part of the world. As a Faversham resident noted on social media: “If we are to lose Nagden Marshes, Graveney Marshes and Cleve Marshes to the biggest solar farm in the UK, why are the hundreds of new houses being built in Faversham not having solar rooftops?”
If that is possibly the definition of a rhetorical question, the destruction of such a huge expanse of land in an area so important for wildlife and people alike is anything but a light-hearted matter.
CPRE Kent’s response to the second public consultation totalled almost 1,700 words, our primary concerns focusing on the following areas (more may be added after scrutiny of the DCO application):
- Damage to landscape, including tranquillity and dark skies
- Inadequate assessment of flood risk and potential conflict with the Environment Agency’s ‘managed retreat’ strategy
- Impacts on soil microclimate and hydrology
- Ecological impacts
- Damage to heritage assets caused by construction traffic
- Loss of agricultural land
- Threats to animal welfare
With government offering little or no incentive for solar energy to become an integral requirement for housing development – the export tariff, the money given to householders with solar panels for the electricity they provide to the national grid, ends on March 31, while it has announced that it will not be subsidising any renewable-energy projects until at least 2025 – can such an environmentally damaging proposal as Cleve Hill be justified?
CPRE Kent recognises the challenges of climate change and the government’s commitment to meeting carbon-emission targets but does not consider that the renewable-energy benefits of Cleve Hill outweigh the damage it would cause the North Kent Marshes.
We also question the sustainability of reliance on lithium-ion battery technology, with its own remote but concerning ecological impacts.
More broadly, Kent could not be accused of failing to contribute to the country’s renewable-energy needs. The website MyGridGB’s UK Renewable Energy Map shows that, in October 2017, this county had 36 solar farms either active, in construction or awaiting construction. Neighbouring Surrey, by comparison, had just two… and one of those floats on a reservoir.
Further, Kent hosts five wind farms, including, in London Array, the second-largest offshore site in the world. A sixth is planned.
Cleve Hill lies on the boundary of Swale and Canterbury districts, and two councillors from the latter local authority have pointed out in the local press that, in terms of providing ‘green energy’, “the Canterbury area alone is punching six times its weight against the national average”.
Michael Wilcox is chairman of GREAT (Graveney Rural Environment Action Team), which has been fighting the solar park plans at Cleve Hill and has been encouraged by the response to the consultation.
“I think they’ve been overwhelmed by the feedback, which has led to the delayed application,” he said.
“We haven’t really seen any changes from the developers since the consultation, so we don’t really know what’s going on, but both Kent Wildlife Trust and our local MP Helen Whately have openly come out against the scheme.”
There is a belief among some that the Cleve Hill application is a ‘done deal’, that conversations behind closed doors have secured a decision in the developer’s favour, but Mr Wilcox does not see it that way:
“I think opposition is building. I thought it might have been a done deal, a tick in the box for the carbon targets they’re chasing, but as the months have gone past it’s become glaringly obvious that it’s not green energy if you’re destroying countryside and harming wildlife. “This looks and feels like a dense industrial development and I think people question if this is the answer.
“I want to be clear: we are not against solar energy, but this kind of thing is dirty solar. Why new homes are not incorporating solar panels is a mystery – when a house is being built is the easiest time to put in solar.”
The loss of wildlife is one of the most distressing aspects of the Cleve Hill project for Mr Wilcox, who lives in Nagden.
“It’s this little pocket of land that somehow missed being designated as worthy of protection. If it’s solely down to land management, then there’s the lovely story of Elmley over on the Isle of Sheppey, where 40-odd years ago some of the site was farmed for arable and the production of barley or corn but has now been converted back and forms part of a nature reserve.
“The land here has been identified for managed retreat and conversion towards intertidal saltmarsh, but under this scheme it would be killed by a whole load of steel.
“Apparently the developer has described it as just muddy fields, but on those muddy fields there are nesting lapwings, skylarks and reed buntings, while they form part of a wider expanse necessary for birds of prey such as marsh and hen harriers.”
When considering how Cleve Hill Solar Park would look, you need to disregard anything you might already have seen elsewhere.
“It would entail about a million panels packed very densely. Rather than the familiar south-facing setting, they would have an east-west orientation and look like a factory,” said Mr Wilcox.
“The normal appearance of a solar farm is quite benign, but this design made me question the whole proposal as it’s so dense and has panels up to 4.3 metres high – as high as a London double-decker bus.
“South-facing panels have substantial space between them so they don’t shade each other, whereas east-west ones are about blanket coverage that can absorb more radiation early and late in the day.
“These would be angled at about 12 degrees – almost flat – whereas south-facing panels are 30-40 degrees.
“The panels planned for Cleve Hill would be 24 metres across with just three 30-centimetre gaps to let the rain drip off. The rows would be up to half a kilometre in length and there would need to be 2.5-metre spaces between the rows to allow for maintenance.
“In short, the ground would be receiving barely any sunlight and effectively die.”
The developer says it is looking to include “battery storage technology” in its scheme although it has not decided on the details.
“It’s likely the battery would need about nine hectares, together with a new bund around it,” said Mr Wilcox.
“The battery storage could make this more about price speculation than energy production – a similar installation in Australia is reported to earn huge profits by selling energy when it’s more expensive.”
A verdict on the proposed Cleve Hill Solar Park could be expected from the Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Strategy in late 2019. For the wildlife that depends on this special place and for the people who love it, there can only be one acceptable answer.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019