Published: 11:37, 02 March 2020
| Updated: 11:51, 02 March 2020
Campaigners fighting against the controversial Cleve Hill Solar Park bid feel it is “too close to call” if the recommendation on whether to approve proposals has been made in their favour.
Plans to construct what would be Britain’s biggest solar farm on almost 1,000 acres of stunning farmland and marshes in Graveney - just outside Faversham - were scrutinised during a public examination last year with almost universal opposition, and have been branded “recklessly dangerous”, with an apparently high risk of a runaway fire occurring.
If approved, solar panels the height of double decker buses would be erected across an area the size of 700 football pitches.
Despite huge amounts of backlash from opposition parties - including Faversham MP Helen Whately and campaign group Graveney Rural Environment Action Team (Great) - the firm behind plans, Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd (CHSPL), maintains the project “is vital to reduce carbon emissions and a reliance on non-renewable energy”.
But campaigners have raised numerous concerns about the scale and location of the development, the destruction of the landscape, the loss of farmland and the damaging effect on wildlife.
Given the unprecedented size of the park, planning powers have been taken out of the hands of the local authority, Swale Borough Council, as the scheme is classified as a National Significant Infrastructure (NSIP).
Last May, a government-appointed inquiry into plans began and saw campaigners turn out in their hundreds in a battle to block the bid.
When the examination closed in November, it triggered a three-month period for the planning inspectorate panel, headed by David Rose, to write a report and submit a recommendation to energy secretary Alok Sharma - which was done on Friday.
But what is advised will not be publicly revealed until his decision - due in three months’ time - has been made.
Should plans be approved, construction could start as early as the spring of 2021.
Sir David Melville, who has played a pivotal part in the fight against plans, believes the recommendation “could go either way”.
The professor has raised a number of concerns about proposals, especially over lithium-ion batteries and the potential for a runaway fire at the site. Sir David, Faversham Society’s vice-chairman, says his fears have been further endorsed in a recent report into a fire at a similar development in Arizona in 2012.
Sandra Kennedy, of the Arizona State Commission, wrote in the report: “Knowing now how easily a fire and/ or explosion can evidently occur at these types of relatively small (2MW) lithium-ion battery facilities, it appears that a similar fire even at a very large battery facility (250MW+) would have very severe and potentially catastrophic consequences, and that responders would have a very difficult time trying to handle such an incident.”
Sir David said: “The Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) proposed for CHSPL is even larger at 700MWh.
“This determination by the Arizona State Commission clearly reinforces the view of the Faversham Society and others, expressed in evidence to the examination, that the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries are unacceptable at any scale, and especially when close to habitation.
“A proposal for a BESS close to Faversham which will be more than five times the size of the current largest in the world, poses unparalleled risks and must be regarded as recklessly dangerous and totally unacceptable.”
He hopes the report into the battery fire in Arizona has strengthened the case against Cleve Hill plans, but remains “cautiously optimistic”.
“My feeling at the end of the inquiry process was that it was too close to call,” he said.
“The case against Cleve Hill is very strong, and gets stronger as decisions emerge following the regulator’s report on the Arizona fire.
“Although I am cautiously optimistic, I still feel it could go either way, which emphasises the crucial importance of the continuing campaign before the secretary of state makes his decision.”