By Declan Wiffen
When Cleve Hill’s industrial scale solar farm was proposed on the open landscape of the North Kent Marshes I felt quite conflicted. On the one hand, I have a deep affection for this unique stretch of coastline and the freedom it offers from the constraints of everyday life.
On the other hand, like many of us who acknowledge the reality of climate change, I recognise that renewable energy is crucial for our future.
And yet, the feeling that prevailed was a strong opposition to the proposal. But how could I be against renewable energy? I felt embarrassed when telling friends that I didn’t think this was a good idea, worried of being a proponent of a regressive nostalgia towards the English countryside.
So when I heard that Swale Green Party was not supporting the solar farm, I felt a great sense of relief, because if “EVEN THE GREEN PARTY OPPOSE IT” who are leading proponents of renewables, then something isn’t quite right. This chimed with a research project I had been reading about led by James Pearce-Higgins, the Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, which is investigating the impact that renewable energies and their infrastructures have on global biodiversity.
It’s important for me to realise that concern for the environment is not a game of Top Trumps where one concern for the state of the world outweighs another. Some people will come down on the other side, but it is possible to think renewable energy is important while at the same time not giving renewable energy companies a blank cheque to do as they wish.
My main problems with the idea of the Cleve Hill’s proposal relate to the industrialisation of the countryside and I’ve wanted to try and articulate what my oppositions are, so below are some thoughts on my first concern: ecology and biodiversity. I will write about other concerns, such as the value of open space and the monetization of natural resources at a later date.
Ecology and biodiversity
Graveney Marshes are surrounded by areas of conservation. Following Cleve Hill’s own designation with which to consult the local community based on the area they think the solar farm will impact (visually and ecologically) the following areas of conservation are within this radius: Swale National Nature Reserve, Elmley National Nature Reserve, Oare Local Nature Reserve, South Swale Local Nature Reserve, Seasalter Levels Local Nature Reserve.
Between them, these sites have the following national and international designations: Environmentally Sensitive Area, Ramsar, Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA), Important Bird Area (IBA). The Marshes themselves are also designated as a Higher Level Stewardship Target area, Environmentally Sensitive Area and were a Nature Improvement Area.
Considering the proximity of and designation of Graveney Marshes, it seems counterintuitive to propose an industrial scale solar park, despite its worthy goal of providing sustainable energy. For example, the RSPB are generally in favour of renewable energy, however they recommend that solar developments ‘avoid legally protected areas (SACs, SPAs, Ramsar sites, SSSIs etc.), and other ecologically sensitive sites such as Important Bird Areas (IBAs).’ Furthermore, BRE state in their guidance on solar energy and biodiversity that, although some solar projects can enhance biodiversity, ‘sites within or functionally linked to Special Protected Areas (SPA), for example, are very unlikely to be appropriate.’ This issue of functionally linked habitats seems of upmost importance in consideration of this proposal. A functionally linked habit describes an area which ‘supports species that the surrounding habitats are designated as important for’ at certain times of the year.
For example, the Marsh Harrier, rarer than the Golden Eagle, is a bird that has been known to nest on this farmland and uses the Marshes’ numerous ditches to hunt. The effect of 4-meter high columns of solar panels on these rare birds of prey is unknown, as no research has been carried out. However, it is expected to have an adverse effect as the open space they require for hunting will be lost, regardless of whether the ditches are maintained, and nesting sites are unlikely to be chosen due to the small scale of open land remaining. Other species which will be affected by loss of habitat and functionally linked habitat are: Reed Bunting, Cuckoo, Sky Lark, Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Lapwing, Curlew, Brent Geese, Barn Owl, Short Earned Owl, Kestrel.
Kent Wildlife Trust says that ‘[it] is fairly clear that there will be a significant loss of habitat for those species that rely on the open farmland in this area.’ Because of the sheer scale of the proposal, it is hard to accept that the direct and indirect damage to wildlife will be insignificant. While many of these species use other areas around Graveney Marshes that have the designated status, the effects of removing a 3.6km² block of functionally linked habitat causes enough concern for Kent Wildlife Trust to say they will take a precautionary approach where research and evidence is lacking.
Entangled with the concern for wildlife is that for biodiversity. Cleve Hill want to fit as many solar panels as they possibly can onto the site by using east-west panels rather than those that face south. No other solar project in the UK uses this type of structure, as south facing panels benefit from capturing most sunlight. East-west panels need to be more densely packed into the space and this structure risks being unable to mitigate against the loss of biodiversity due to the economic pressure to make the project viable. Effectively covering the land with east-west panels will cause lack of light to any vegetation under the panels, rainwater destruction of the ground underneath the panels, and lack of space between the rows of panels for grazing animals, wildlife and plants that are often used in smaller scale solar parks. All other solar parks that maintain biodiversity in the UK are inevitably smaller than the industrial scale that Cleve Hill are proposing.
The above suggests that, although renewable energy should be a top priority, this particular site and design are inadequate when it comes to a holistic and ecological approach to sustainable energy. It’s ironic that in order to help protect the planet Cleve Hill want to destroy a large chunk of it.