Many countries are using non-arable land to establish PV power plants and wind farms, but some sites for green energy projects are also homes for protected species of animals and plants. Striking a balance between expanding the deployment of renewable generation systems and protecting native ecosystems has become an ongoing challenge for governments that have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The latest example of this dilemma is the development of Cleve Hill Solar Park located in the county of Kent in the UK. The construction of this project, which is set to be the largest non-subsidized PV power plant in the country, is close to being approved by the relevant agencies of the national government this week. However, there is vocal opposition to the project. In particular, some conservation groups have expressed concerns that the site of the power plant is a large area of salt marshes and former farmlands where many kinds of birds come to winter regularly. They will be at risk of being displaced once the construction begins.
The UK has been rapidly expanding the deployment of renewable generation systems over the recent years, and solar PV has emerged as the main growth driver in the country’s green energy sector. The Guardian reported that PV systems in the UK reached a new monthly generation record this April, totaling 9.68 gigawatts. They have also played an important role in extending the period during which the country does not consume coal-fired electricity. Additionally, there are calls for developing more green energy projects as a way to stimulate the economy that has been depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cleve Hill Solar Park is a joint venture of the UK’s Hive Energy and Germany’s Wirsol Energy. The proposed project will cover 900 acres and deploy around 880,000 pieces of solar panels (or PV modules). Its total generation capacity will be at least 350 megawatts. The construction cost is currently estimated at £450 million. Once up and running, Cleve Hill Solar Park will supply electricity to 91,000 homes and help reinforce grid stability with its energy storage facility. In fact, the project is technically a PV power and battery storage plant. Its battery facility, which is situated in a village called Graveney, will comprise as many as 7,660 individual battery units and have a total storage capacity of 350 megawatt-hours.
The major controversy surrounding the proposed project is the environmental impact. The total area of the project site is equivalent to 600 football fields. Within its boundaries are woodlands, wetlands, and other wildlife habitats that Kent is famous for. Conservationists have pointed out that given its scale, Cleve Hill Solar Park will surely disrupt the highly diverse local ecosystem that supports various species of birds and bats. Some of the birds that were brought up during the consultation sessions for the project include lapwings, brent geese, golden plovers, and western marsh harriers.
Helen Whately, the Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Ken, told the Sun Telegraph that while she supports the government’s target of reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050, she does not believe the pursuit of this goal should come at the cost of destroying the landscape of Kent. The Campaign to Protect Rural England in Kent also objects to the building of an energy storage facility in Graveney. The organization claimed that the planned facility has a very high risk of a spontaneous explosion and fire since its scale is greater than the global average for battery storage plants by five folds.
In early May, Cleve Hill (or the Hive-Wirsol joint venture) submitted a plan that aims to minimize the impact of the project on the local landscape. It includes a 130-hectare habitat management area, a footpath for ramblers, and a 63-meter buffer zone between the PV power plant and the Saxon Shore Way.
Cleve Hill Solar Park has been designated by the UK government as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project because the planned generation capacity of this project surpasses 50 megawatts. The application for the Development Consent Order was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in 2018, and a series of public and legal consultation events for the project have been held since then. The significance of developing a green energy project under this framework is that it bypasses local planning requirements. Local authorities are involved in the planning process, but their consent is not necessary for the project to proceed. The Planning Inspectorate already issued its recommendation on February 28, and the final decision on whether to go ahead with the construction will be made no later than May 28 by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. With the approval for the project being a near certainty, the construction permit is expected to be issued as early as this week.
If the project is greenlighted as scheduled, its construction will commence in 2021. The whole PV power and battery storage plant will then enter operation no later than 2023. The development partners Hive and Wirsol stated that Cleve Hill Solar Park will lower the UK’s annual carbon emissions by 68,000 metric tons and provide an annual revenue of around £1 million for Kent.
(News source: TechNews. Photo credit: Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd.)