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Article by Neill Barston | 25th September 2018

Storm Clouds Gather Over Kent Solar Park

Controversy has surrounded proposals for a £400 million solar power park close to the outskirts of Faversham, that have sparked widespread community concerns. We examine the merits of this nationally significant proposal – and its impact on the local landscape.

The decision to propose placing what would be one of Europe’s largest solar power plants at Graveney, near Faversham, comes at a decisive moment in time. With the country facing an energy crisis as our ageing coal-fired power stations are due to be decommissioned by 2025, and delays over a new £20 billion facility at Hinkley Point in Somerset not expected to be operational until at least 2026, meeting our ever-increasing demand for electricity has become hugely challenging.

In the wake of the government cutting subsidies to those considering household solar power options, the rush for properties to become their own power-generators has slowed significantly in the past few years.

Consequently, private firms have seen the potential for developing major solar panel operations, including a scheme at Herne Bay, known as Owls Hatch. More than £50 million was reportedly placed into the venture from British Solar Renewables that went live three years ago, which is around a fifth the size of the huge development proposed for Graveney. It presently supplies 50MW of power, which is said to be enough to supply around 14,000 properties on its 212-acre site.

The major new plans proposed for the Faversham area are five times as large as the existing Herne Bay project, on an area the size of more than 640 football pitches at a total of 492 hectares (1,200 acres). Its developers maintain the site will provide a valuable source of energy for around 110,000 homes.

It would feature a total of around one million solar panels up to 3.9m in height, nearly equivalent to the size of a double decker bus. This is said to be due to some of its panels facing in an east/west direction in a zig-zag pattern, unlike other schemes that are typically north/west facing.

As part of the plans from solar park specialists Hive energy and German firm Wirsol, the scheme will feature the world’s biggest battery capable of storing 350MW of energy. No details of how this would be developed have yet been released, but its developers stated the project will only be built over with solar panels on 53% of the total site.

National media reports that entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has developed similar large scale systems in Australia, would be involved in the scheme have been refuted.

Growing concern

The project is so large that it is to be determined by Secretary of State for Business, Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark, with a full development proposal expected this autumn.

However, the plans have caused concern from residents’ groups and nature organisations including Kent Wildlife Trust, after the applicants stated they wanted to extend the area of the site by around 10%.

With the area of greenfield marshland earmarked for the development being considered by area planners as a valuable floodplain, fears have been expressed over its environmental impact and its potential effects on a host of wildlife species, ranging from geese and harrier hawks through to a range of migratory birds.

Speaking about the plans, Michael Wilcox, of Graveney Rural Environment Action Team (GREAT), explained residents concerns are founded on its scale and impact: “This scheme is enormous, massive solar parks like this are normally located in desert regions. It’s in the wrong place – a decommissioned coal power station would be better,” he said, adding: “It will be harmful to wildlife including many protected species of birds, animals and plants, as well as destroying a landscape loved and used by thousands of people.

“The developers’ stated aim is to produce the lowest cost energy in the UK – but at what cost? And what will the environmental impact be?

“It isn’t on a hill and it isn’t anything like a park. It is on three marshes, Nagden, Graveney and Cleve Marshes, and with one million panels that are packed tightly together in an industrial style, mounted as high as a double decker bus, and including the world’s largest industrial-scale battery, it will look more like a massive factory and be one of the world’s largest buildings by footprint.”

In correspondence with the group, Helen Whately, MP for Faversham, also expressed her reservations about the scheme’s core aspects.

Responding on her website to the issue, she explained that after attending one of the public exhibitions on the proposals, she had spoken to a wide range of residents offering considerable concern over the proposals.

She said: “I support the development of alternative energy sources, but some balance has to be struck between the big picture benefits and the immediate, local impact. I don’t feel a balance is achieved here. The local impact is simply unacceptable.”

Sharing campaigners’ concerns, The Faversham Society questioned the size of the development, noting it was significantly larger than anything previously developed within the UK.

While supporting creation of renewable energy sources from wind, solar and tidal technology for the greater environmental good, it had considerable concerns about the scheme, especially changes to its proposal.

In addition, the group highlighted the fact the land was a protective floodplain for Faversham, controlled by the Environment Agency, with unqualified developers seeking to assume control of its management.

It was especially concerned that it would create a precedent that marshlands in the Western part of Swale could be used for similar purposes.

Similar issues were also raised by Kent Wildlife Trust, which also expressed considerable concerns. “Cleve Hill Solar Park is huge. It is about five times bigger than anything else currently built or planned in the UK. Most notably it is also of a very different design to other solar developments – rather than south-facing panels, they will face east and west, meaning they can be installed much closer together. This new design is likely to increase the impacts and significantly reduce the opportunities for wildlife compared to ‘traditional’ designs,” commented the Trust.

Developers’ response

Speaking to The Canterbury INDEX, the two companies stated that there had been an extensive search for a suitable location, including considering ‘brownfield’ industrial sites.

Spokesperson Emily Marshall said: “The Solar Park was selected through an extensive site search exercise. The south of England was of particular interest due to the higher levels of solar irradiation experienced relative to other parts of the UK.

“To date, no other sites have been identified in the south of England in such close proximity to the 400 kV National Grid Electricity Transmission (NGET) network with the ability to accommodate a development that can generate over 350MW of clean, renewable power for over 110,000 UK homes.”

She added that the solar panels had been reduced in density at points closest to residents, as well as screening being proposed to further lessen their visual impact.

In addition, she explained that the development would deliver subsidy-free energy that was clean, affordable and secure, and drive by innovation.

To date, two public consultations have been held on the scheme, one last Christmas and the most recent concluded in August, with those behind the scheme stating the land was of low agricultural value.

Consent to develop the venture is anticipated to be taken forward later this autumn, though a final verdict is not expected well into next year.

Whether the weight of local concerns are considered remains to be seen, but campaigners say they will not give up the fight any time soon to protect the landscape they love.

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