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Cleve Hill: when are we told what’s next?


It’s eight months since Alok Sharma, secretary of state for business industry and industrial strategy granted the consent order for Wirsol Energy Ltd and Hive Energy to develop the massive solar power station at Cleve Hill. Since then we have heard very little, so what is happening?

Well, as far as the Department for Business, Industry and Industrial Strategy is concerned, Alok Sharma left his job in January. As far as the developers are concerned, they are saying very little and their last “community newsletter” was in July, 2019. Clearly, since they had been given approval they have felt no obligation to provide local updates on a project that is set to blight the community and primary school with two years of heavy traffic and disruption and could pose unacceptable risks of fire and explosion for decades.

Recently, as reported in Kentonline, the developers have provided indications that despite plans to start construction work this spring they are now talking about “nearer to the end of 2021”.

What we do know however is that Wirsol is still awaiting judgment in a High Court case in which they have been sued for £41 million by Toucan Energy Holdings, another energy company. The case is in relation to 19 solar farms that Wirsol sold to Toucan, of which 15 were “blighted by defects” that made them inoperable due to a failure to meet safety and electrical regulations. Judgment on the case, which ended in November, 2020, is not expected until May 2021.

What was also clearly admitted during the court case is that Wirsol is actively seeking to sell the whole Cleve Hill £450 million project to an unknown bidder. Even though it was never mentioned by the developer in their proposal or at any point in the public examination of the plan, the Faversham Society has suspected this for some time since Wirsol describes itself in its annual accounts as a company that “designs and builds solar parks for resale”. However, this along with the information above serves to illustrate that extreme diligence will be needed to ensure that all obligations are met and all legal, safety and environmental regulations are adhered to in the detailed design and construction phases.

The development consent order is akin to outline planning permission and so the only opportunities to mitigate some of the adverse effects of this outrageous development are through the requirements in the consent order to meet a large number of planning requirements for which the responsible planning authority is Swale Borough Council. These must be made through a series of plans, only one of which (on archaeology) has so far been submitted.

Further detailed plans are required from the developer for Swale’s approval on all aspects of the project. It is expected that as these plans are submitted, Swale will consult widely, including with local bodies such as the Faversham Society and where appropriate consult appropriate expert advisers. Changes at this stage by the developer are common (as technology develops, for example) but they require consultation.

As Faversham Society members are aware, of particular public concern are the safety aspects associated with the proposed battery energy storage system. Lithium-ion storage systems continue to be the source of fires and explosions at sites throughout the world and have been extensively examined in several authoritative official reports.

The lithium-ion batteries proposed for Cleve Hill at 700MWh (megawatt hours) are almost five times larger than the previous largest in the world and therefore their planning must be subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny.

In a webinar in December, 2020, the solicitor representing the developers admitted that battery safety/fire hazard is one of the biggest issues to be resolved. It is clear that the larger the number of containers, the greater is the risk of an inevitable individual fire and the greater is the risk of it spreading with catastrophic consequences.

All that the developer has produced so far is an “outline battery fire safety management plan” dated August, 2019, which is a sketchy summary of what is required in a final plan, with a list of documents consulted. It also misleadingly suggests approval by the Kent Fire and Rescue Service which the service has denied in writing.

An example of the inadequacy of the approach is the statement that the hundreds of containers that house the thousands of individual batteries will be at least 3 metres apart when it is known from the official report of the most thoroughly documented fire in Arizona that flames of 50-70ft (15-22m) emanated from a burning lithium-ion battery container. The explosion associated with this event also injured nine firefighters.

What is required now is a detailed design and plan which is approved by the Health and Safety Executive and Kent Fire and Rescue Service which covers all fire prevention, suppression and responder access and safety aspects and is specific to a battery energy storage system of this unprecedented scale. Scrutiny, expert input and, if necessary, modification of this document before approval by Swale Council is essential to mitigate the self-evident risks of the Cleve Hill development. In the view of the Faversham Society this should consider safer alternatives to lithium-ion batteries and a complete redesign of the spacing of individual container units as well as a reappraisal of the scale of the overall battery system.

February 18, 2021

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