Guest Blog by Matthew Hatchwell
On May 10, 2020, the Daily Telegraph published an article about the proposed Cleve Hill Solar Park (CHSP) just outside Faversham on the north Kent coast. If it goes ahead, it would be the largest solar power station in the UK, covering 900 acres of farmland, containing nearly a million solar panels, and including a battery storage system five times larger than the current record-holder, in Australia. Local residents, although supportive of solar energy in general, oppose the scheme for a number of reasons, including safety risks associated with the massive battery and the environmental impacts of building a solar power station on a site that lies below sea level in an area that is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels as a result of climate change.
According to the Daily Telegraph article last week, “a spokeswoman for the developers, Hive Energy and Wirsol, said safety was ‘at the heart’ of the farm’s design and a battery safety management plan has been agreed with the Health and Safety Executive, as well as Kent Fire and Rescue Service.” When asked to confirm the existence of such an agreement, KFRS replied that they had “at no stage agreed to or signed off any plans relating to the project as suggested in the news article.” Lithium ion batteries of the type proposed for Cleve Hill have caused fires, explosions and releases of toxic hydrogen fluoride gas in similar facilities in the US, South Korea and elsewhere that have led respected solar industry and financial investment commentators to caution against their use at other sites until safety questions are answered.
Regarding its impacts on biodiversity, the Daily Telegraph article reported a claim by Hive Energy and Wirsol that: “The solar park will deliver a 65% increase in biodiversity on the intensively farmed site.” In fact, the comparison should not be between the CHSP scenario and intensive farming, which is notoriously bad for biodiversity, but with the alternative that was being planned by the Environment Agency for the site before the solar power station was proposed: reversion to salt marsh. Salt marshes are the second most productive and valuable ecosystem in the world after coral reefs, providing a suite of benefits including not only wildlife habitat but also protection against coastal flooding, nutrients for marine organisms, carbon sequestration, erosion control, recreational opportunities, etc. Data from other sites in the UK where agricultural land has been allowed to revert to salt marsh, in Essex, Kent and West Sussex, show that such an initiative at Cleve Hill would result in a dramatic increase in biodiversity compared to the current land use or any increase that might result from conversion to a solar power station. The increase in biodiversity that is being promised by CHSP developers is far from guaranteed in any case, since there is no way of knowing exactly how bird and other species — including marsh harriers, Brent geese, water voles and many others — would react to the vast area of solar panels, the height of a double-decker bus, that they intend to install.
There is no doubt that the UK and every other country in the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. Solar technology should be obligatory for all new houses. The proposed Cleve Hill project demonstrates, however, that not every initiative would deliver on the promise of clean energy. It makes no sense to locate such a project on land that lies below sea level and that was previously earmarked for reversion to salt marsh.
Matthew Hatchwell is a wildlife conservation consultant living in Faversham, with a particular focus on European eels (the only Critically Endangered species that occurs at the Cleve Hill site). He is the former Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London and previously led conservation programmes in Congo and Madagascar for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society.