UK’s biggest solar farm planned for Kent coast
Subsidy-free plant would cover 900 acres of farmland near Great Expectations marshes at Faversham, dwarfing output of UK’s current largest solar site
The developers of the Cleve Hill project hope to lay solar panels across 890 acres of farmland near the village of Graveney in Kent. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA
An enormous solar power station is planned for the north Kent coast that would be the UK’s biggest and dwarf existing solar farms, providing a significant boost to an industry that has stalled since ministers halted subsidies 18 months ago.
Cleve Hill, a mile from the historic town of Faversham, would have five times the capacity of the UK’s current largest solar farm and provide enough power for around 110,000 households if it comes online in 2020 as proposed.
Developers Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy hope to lay solar panels across 890 acres (365 hectares) – equal to more than 400 football pitches – of farmland near the village of Graveney.
The companies think that falling technology costs and the economies of scale from supersizing the solar farm mean it will work without subsidies.
Only one big subsidy-free solar farm has been built since support was axed by the government in 2016, near Flitwick in Bedfordshire, but that was an extension to an existing solar farm built using earlier subsidies.
Hugh Brennan of Hive Energy said: “The Cleve Hill solar park is a pioneering scheme that aims to optimise the technological developments in solar energy.”
A consultation has begun and letters sent out to residents ahead of local meetings in December, with the project’s backers stressing they are aware of the site’s importance for wildlife.
The planned area for the Cleve Hill solar farm near Faversham in Kent
The area’s salt marshes and mudflats are used by migrating birds including marsh harriers and lapwing. Readers will also know the marshes as similar to the nearby childhood home of Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
One resident said he was in favour of renewable energy but there were concerns locally over the sheer scale of the project.
Adrian Oliver, owner of the Freewheel cycling cafe in Graveney, said: “I think people are worried about the scale of it, and the infrastructure [roads] impact as it gets built.
“I don’t think anyone is anti the fact that it is a brilliant energy source. I’m broadly for it as long it’s done well and doesn’t disturb the wildlife.”
He added that the area had experienced some traffic during the building of a substation for the world’s biggest offshore windfarm, the London Array. The proposed solar farm would connect up to the substation.
Cleve Hill’s backers said public rights of way that run across the site would not be affected, and footpaths would not be permanently closed. They also promise to limit any impact on wildlife, with a proposal to establish a mitigation area for birds.
The Kent Wildlife Trust said its main concern was about the impact on birds that live on its nature reserve adjacent to the site. Brent geese from the reserve, for example, sometimes rest up on the farmland.
“The scale is unprecedented. We have a lot of questions,” said Greg Hitchcock, the conservation officer at the trust.
The RSPB said it was examining the plans and that it was too early to comment.
One green group welcomed the solar farm but said that its enormous size showed government policy meant that community-backed solar plants were being “frozen out”.
Max Wakefield, lead campaigner at climate charity 10:10, said: “It’s a real ray of sunshine to see such ambitious clean energy projects emerging in the UK despite the policy obstacles. But the scale this project has had to adopt in order to be commercially viable is also a warning.”
The Solar Trade Association echoed that view. “Government policy of excluding solar from clean power auctions is driving larger projects in a bid to get the economics to work,” said a spokeswoman.
Cleve Hill could have a capacity of as much as 350MW, though its backers said the final size had not been decided. The scale means the project will need to gain approval from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A medium-sized conventional power plant would generate around 1,000MW.
Britain’s biggest existing solar farm is at Lyneham in Wiltshire. It produces 69MW and is owned by the government. There are also several around the 50-60MW mark. However, most of the UK’s solar farms are relatively small, and only around 80 can generate more than 20MW.