Published: 06:00, 30 May 2020
| Updated: 08:53, 30 May 2020
The proposals had rumbled on for years, but developers Cleve Hill Solar Park now have permission to push forward with building the UK's biggest solar panel site in Graveney, between Faversham and Whitstable.
Here, KentOnline answers all the questions behind the huge scheme.
What will be built?
The UK’s largest solar park. Electricity generated will be fed into a new energy storage facility - or what is essentially a huge battery - built on the site.
How big will it be?
The whole project site covers almost five million square metres - 900 acres - of farm and marsh land.
It can be divided into four existing land use types – arable land (79%), freshwater grazing marsh (7%), flood defences (12%), and the existing Cleve Hill sub-station (2%).
387 hectares of the site will host the park, which will be covered with 880,000 solar panels - some raised as high as 3.9 metres because of flood risks.
Who’s behind the plan?
A firm named Cleve Hill Solar Park Limited. It’s a joint venture between two solar energy firms – Hive Energy Ltd and Wirsol Energy Ltd.
In 2015, Hive developed what was then the largest solar park in the UK, Southwick Estate Solar Farm in Hampshire.
Wirsol has built and operates 24 solar parks in the UK, and five in Australia.
How has the reaction been since the result?
Cleve Hill Solar Park bosses are unsurprisingly "delighted" by the decision.
"We are proud to lead the way to deliver the UK’s largest solar park. CHSP offers a real solution to our urgent climate needs and showcases the potential for the UK to lead the green recovery."
However, the news has not been warmly received by most others. Faversham MP Helen Whately says she is "disappointed" by the outcome.
"We put forward a strong and positive message about how to make these marshes a better place for wildlife – but clearly it wasn’t enough to win the argument," she said.
"Many people will be shocked and deeply frustrated by this decision – particularly people in Graveney and the surrounding area. While consent has been granted, the concerns about this development have not gone away.
"The developers need to recognise the level of concern about their plans and work more closely with the local community. I’ll continue to speak up for the people most affected by this development.
"This decision is not an excuse to ride roughshod over the concerns of local people.”
Scores of other groups and individuals have expressed their anger and sadness over the government's decision, with many suggesting lines of appeal that may be available.
Tim Valentine, cabinet member for environment at Swale Borough Council, said: “We are extremely disappointed in this decision, particularly the lack of weight given to the numerous objections to the scheme from ourselves, local residents and interest groups.
“This development is almost the size of Faversham itself and would be a dominant feature in the middle of the countryside, alongside one of the most important coastal wetland sites for migrating birds in the world.
“We will now take some time to consider the options available to us.”
Why build it?
CHSPL says the project will contribute to the UK’s need for affordable low carbon technologies to protect homes and businesses from high energy costs.
It is planned to help with the UK's effort to have a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
How much will the project cost and who is paying for it?
The whole project will cost an estimated £450 million, including £50 million spent on land.
Development costs will be covered by CHSPL’s deep cash reserves, while construction costs will be funded through a combination of equity and debt finance.
How is it different from other solar farms?
It is mammoth in size - about five times bigger than anything else currently built or planned in the UK.
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.
Is the land protected?
It is surrounded by habitats designated for their wildlife value at a national and international level ‘The Swale’ has three levels of designation: Site of Special Scientific Interest, a national designation; Special Protection Area, a European designation; and Ramsar, a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention.
What animals can be found on the site?
Surveys recorded dozens of bird breeding species in and around the development site and surrounding habitats, including marsh harrier, lapwing, bearded tit, skylark, dunnock, house sparrow, barn owl, yellow wagtail, meadow pipit, linnet and reed bunting. A pair of peregrines were also seen frequently.
Other animals identified include great crested newts, bats, water voles and other reptiles.
Who gave the green light?
The Secretary of State for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, made the final decision based on a recommendation from the Planning Inspectorate, a government body which carried out an enquiry after examining the application and any evidence presented.
When will construction start?
CHSPL hopes to start construction in the spring of 2021, with the development taking place over two phases.
The first would take 18 months to complete and includes the solar park and a habitat management area.
Phase two would see the construction of the energy storage facility. It would take six months to build, but work could start before the end of phase one.
When will construction work take place?
Core working hours are proposed to be between 7am and 7pm, Monday to Friday, and 7am to 1pm on a Saturday.
Will there be much activity on site when the park is operational?
It would be restricted to vegetation and livestock management, plus any maintenance work. Vegetation on the site will be grazed by sheep.
Security will be monitored off-site.
What’s the lifespan of the park?
CHSPL says a minimum of 40 years, while opponents claim this is vastly overstated and fear technology advances will shorten it further.
Decommissioning the park is expected to take between six and 12 months.
What are the health and safety fears?
Objectors fear the repercussions of the massive battery could be huge, suggesting its capacity is a twentieth of the TNT equivalent of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, and state that flames from a potential explosion could reach 70ft in height.
But bosses at Cleve Hill Solar Park say they are working with an industry leading battery supplier and have been provided reassurances on safety standards.