On the edge of the solar dream

This article is written by one of our local residents. It describes very well how the Cleve Hill proposal is much more than, and in fact nothing like, your typical solar park.

Romantics can see the beauty of the ‘solar dream’. The power of the Sun’s rays reaching down to the surface of the Earth to warm it and provide life-giving energy. Our flora and fauna know how to use it, harness it, convert it into life, growth and colour. Plants adapt to the seasons both creatively and defensively. Wildlife and the soil itself seem to have the hang of it and, with a few hiccups along the way like heatwaves, storms and floods, it could all have rolled along quite happily controlled by the balance of nature and a cyclical pattern smoothing out the gains and losses over time.

Unfortunately it’s not so simple when you throw mankind into the mix. Now it’s a different ball game and one which we don’t necessarily get the hang of. Sure our purists can still see the beauty of equilibrium and look to a future of self-powered homes and electric cars. We are nowhere near that yet, but the sensitive installation and use of solar panels could become a significant part of the sustainable power generation mix. It won’t save the planet but could contribute to the future comfort or even survival of mankind.

A sailing vessel can be a good example. Here we have an independent, self-contained unit which combines various resources to power itself through the water and provide all the electric energy required on board. We have the power of the wind through sails and turbines, solar panels and hydro-generators and we have batteries for storage. But the system is far from perfect – simply stated ‘if the wind doesn’t blow – the ship doesn’t go’ and furthermore ‘if the sun don’t shine.. the lights go out’! So, at today’s level of technology, we add diesel engines into the mix to provide reliability, convenience and, of course, speed. Inevitably, we are back to burning fossil fuels.

Like our land-based efforts, it’s still a ‘work in progress’ but the effort is going in to make the whole thing more efficient, more convenient and less polluting. One solution could be to cover every surface above the waterline with PV panels, line up a bank of wind generators, trail a line of hydro-generators from the transom and fill the ‘engine room’ with noisy, heavy batteries (storing power involves a chemical process which produces heat and demands strong, noisy cooling fans to remain safe). Polish it up, put it in the Boat Show and they’ll be queuing round the block to marvel at the technology. But you’ll be hard pressed to find the hearty sailor to step forward and proclaim, with tears in his eyes, that it’s just what he’s always wanted. We can stack up the technology, we can make it all work and even make it float but, in the process, we must not forget the objectives. We want to produce cheap, competitive and profitable solar power but at what price. We want our boats to look like boats, we want our wild life to survive and prosper and our ecology to be healthy and balanced; we want our ‘green and pleasant land’ to continue being ‘green and pleasant’.

We have the skills; we have advancing knowledge and refinement; all we need are resources and good intent. So that’s fine – keep up the R&D; make our designs more sympathetic to the environment; be sure that we all understand that our objective is to save the planet and its plants and creatures rather than just use them; stop throwing plastics into the oceans; stop poisoning our streams and rivers; stop polluting the air that the planet breathes and salvation will surely be ours! Our big problems are clearing up the mess we’ve already made and slowing global warming. Some scientists warn that, if we fail to contain global warming to below a rise of 2 degrees in the next three decades we will have passed the ‘tipping point’ (so we are running out of time!)

Crossing the line

Of course there’s a huge ‘BUT’ that comes galloping over the horizon. The problems start as soon as mankind steps into the scene. We may look at the problems and find philanthropic solutions to save the planet and all things that do dwell upon it. But with the development of solar power generation and all other forms of renewables we have to be careful that we don’t get carried away with enthusiasm and finish up destroying the very things that we wish to preserve. There is a fine line between catering for our needs and exploitation.

We must learn from history which tells us that we are responsible for the extinction of much of the planet’s flora and fauna (groups of indigenous plants and animals in a given geographic location) and there lies the fine line between conservation and carnage.

This line will usually be crossed by man’s insatiable desire for wealth and power. Regardless of the effects on the environment or, indeed, on those unfortunate enough to be immediately affected, at the end of the day any scheme has to show a monetary profit.

The ‘solar or bust’ brigade insist that we can’t sustain any project that will not show a profit otherwise the industry relies on politicians and government subsidies and never attracts investment from the money markets. Judging by our experience of politicians squabbling among themselves both nationally and internationally about ‘global warming’ one can sympathise with much of this feeling.

Consequently we are now beginning to see plans for massive developments being put forward which threaten vast areas of our wild landscape. One such scheme is called Cleve Hill Solar Park which is due to be put up for Government approval some time next year. But look at the spec. and the design and one can quickly see why this proposal is creating strong opposition both locally and nationally.

First shock is the shear size of the proposal – over 1,000 acres of wild, greenfield marshland will be covered by 1 million plus PV solar panels (that’s shiny black plastic sheets to the layman) and the rich soil beneath this canopy will become sterile and unused for the next 25 years. As the campaigners are quick to point out this is a footprint larger than the local market town of Faversham.

The second shock is the proposed location. Surely a scheme of this nature and of such a size must be destined for a redundant industrial or a ‘brown field’ site – wrong. The proposal is to swallow the historic marshlands on the North Kent Coast. In the first place it would seem preposterous that such an area of wild, flat marshland should even be available for such a purpose but, according to the developers, this is poor quality farmland and of little importance for wildlife! Tell that to all the local wildlife that will be wiped out.

Third – I heard that the plan was to allow this area of marshland to become tidal again to convert it into salt marshes and provide some added flood protection for Faversham and Whitstable, learning a lesson from the 1953 floods along the North Kent Coast. Maybe that was just a rumour waiting for a more profitable idea to come along!

No such thing as a ‘free’ meal

Equally we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand. At the moment we are creeping inexorably towards that tipping point.

On first sight ‘renewables’ look like a free meal but we know that such a beast rarely, if ever, exists. There is the immediate price to pay – the cost of technology and materials, of construction and installation and management, of transport and maintenance; then come the running costs and financing and insurance and depreciation (in fact everyday business expenditures). All these apply to any industrial development.

The problem with the Cleve Hill scheme is that it demands so much more and threatens to destroy the very things that we are trying to save. In this case it’s a huge extra ask – to destroy one valuable part of the planet simply to exploit it.

Keeping an eye on Brexit

The European Union is a leader in international environmental diplomacy. The UK was one of the most influential countries in shaping these policies which applied to its own national environmental policies.

EU directives ensure that member states use a common approach when solving cross border environmental problems. The ‘Habitats and Birds Directives’ and the ‘Natura 2000’ scheme provide a framework of conservation areas, SPAs and SACs, for research in ecology and conservation biology.

It is essential that, once BREXIT negotiations are complete – we keep asking the questions and that our strong educational policy, both for children and adults, continues and strengthens for the long-term future. If a strong and united Europe can be of any significant benefit to the planet it is surely in the area of wildlife conservation and, BREXIT or not, we should be applying the same rules to our countryside.

Is biodiversity really the answer or just a dream?

Seeking biodiversity is only a start but at least it is better than hurtling towards the future out of control. We can’t do it all as individuals but we should have the opportunity to understand and be involved as groups.

As adults in the 21st century we have to understand that future generations will not enjoy the riches of the natural world if we fail to protect our wildlife resources. Scientific research tells us that this planet is slipping into a state of imbalance both on land and at sea. We can predict a very troubled future if we take no heed and continue along the same path.

Surely our strongest influence is through education. Most children and young people are naturally curious and it is vital that they are given an environment which will stimulate their need to discover. Learning about the flora and fauna and how it fits into the biotic scheme of an area, a region or indeed a planet, is basic stuff deserving a place on any school curriculum. This surely is part of our culture, our heritage and, vitally, of our future.

If we are hell bent on destroying so much of this vital environment I can’t see how our children can learn and benefit from it. The problem is that it can appear to be a bit ‘puffer jackets and green wellies’. We need to get the message out that it’s not just for bird watchers and middle class mums – this is important stuff which affects us all. This is your wildlife and your environment and your countryside and it’s exciting and fulfilling and too good to miss.

The bigger picture

The human race has increased, since 1800, from just 1 billion to over 7.5 billion and is rising exponentially. We are without doubt the most progressive and successful species but this success could be the precursor of our demise.

We occupy a planet with finite resources where our very success threatens our survival. Understanding and promoting biodiversity could not be more significant.

Conservation organisations come into sharp focus as part of the effort to bring our ecosystem back into some sort of balance. Judging by the strength of local feeling already on this subject, the message is going out to the nation that conserving Wild Britain is going to play a vital role in shaping the development of reusable energy and particularly the solar sector.

The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, National Heritage, Greenpeace, and a myriad of smaller organisations are being challenged to step up to the plate and declare their colours – after all there could be a lot of subs. and bequests lost or gained on the outcome. One would expect them to be the standard bearers in the campaign against mega solar factories.

What’s the point of subscribing to the Kent Wildlife Trust if your great marshland areas are covered in black plastic? Or supporting the RSPB if your rarest wild birds are driven away? What’s the point of joining National Heritage when your grandchildren’s wild heritage is gone and long forgotten? There are more effective answers but are we willing to confront them? – population control – cutting back our standard of living – reducing over consumption – attacking greed and waste – attacking pollution – stop depleting the planet’s finite resources.

The landscape of our ancestors

Standing on the edge of the marshlands allows the big skies and the low reed banks to link the past, with the present, with the future. Destroy all this and you destroy our heritage. We are locked into the soil and must accept its trust. We are responsible for its future; for its existence; uncomplicated marshlands where the free birds fly.

We destroy our natural heritage at a cost; the cost will be our mental health or our physical freedom; probably both. Our past; our present; our future; all creatures great and small – if we let them go through neglect; if we destroy them through avarice; then the prospects for mankind are depleted; we cannot wake the following morning to see so many green acres enrobed in black plastic.

Conclusion

The relationship between man and his environment is built on trust. We abuse this trust at our peril. There comes a time to take stock; to evaluate; to learn from the lessons of the past and look to the future.

It is essential that the wildlife conservation message is understood and valued. We will happily subsidise our farmers to allow agricultural land to go fallow for the benefit of our wildlife. On the same basis it is worth fighting for the North Kent Marshlands, which are accepted as one of the most important natural wetland areas in Europe.

Beware all you politicians, financiers and profiteers – you tamper with the marshes at your peril. The wrong decision on this one could make the ’anti-fracking’ campaign look like a tea-party in the vicarage gardens!

 

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