Business secretary grants permission for UK's largest solar farm in Kent

Business secretary Alok Sharma has granted consent for the UK’s largest solar farm in Kent, the first such project to be determined under the streamlined planning regime for major infrastructure, after placing "substantial weight" on its contribution to renewable energy generation.

A visualisation of the Cleve Hill solar farm in Kent. Pic: Solar Trade Association
A visualisation of the Cleve Hill solar farm in Kent. Pic: Solar Trade Association

The government announced yesterday (Thursday) that Sharma, secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has awarded a development consent order for the 491 hectare Cleve Hill Solar Park on the north Kent coast, about 2km from the town of Faversham.

The applicant, Hive Energy and Wirsol, claims the project will generate up to 350MW of electricity, enough to power over 91,000 homes and saving 68,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per annum. 

The firm applied in 2018 for a ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) array with a generation capacity of more than 50 MW, including transformers, switch gear, ancillary equipment, cable circuits and underground connection cables. 

The application also incorporates an energy storage facility for surplus electricity, generated by the PV panels on sunny days when it is not required by the grid, and a new sub-station. 

According to the applicants’ legal advisers, law firm Pinsent Masons, the scheme was the first solar and storage project to be determined by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) under the Planning Act 2008's Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime on the grounds that it will have a generation capacity of more than 50MW. 

It would also be the UK's largest solar project and the largest battery energy storage system, they said.

Sharma accepted a recommendation, issued by a trio of inspectors, that the scheme, covering mainly flat and low-lying arable land, should be given the go ahead. 

He agreed with his inspectors’ recommendation that while there is no "type-specific" National Policy Statement (NPS) for solar power or battery storage, the support for renewable energy in the Energy NPS is "relevant and important" to considering the application. 

He also noted that the inspectors have identified that the development would meet increasing demand for electricity in line with the UK’s recently adopted net zero emissions target. 

Sharma added that he placed "great weight" on the net savings in CO2 emissions that the development will deliver over its lifetime and its contribution to the decarbonisation of the United Kingdom’s electricity generation sector. 

The letter states that Sharma agrees with the inspectors "that substantial weight should be attributed to the contribution that the development, insofar as it relates to the solar PV element, would make towards the identified need for additional renewable energy generation, consistent with local and national policies on sustainable development". 

The PINS inspectors concluded that the solar development would not have an adverse effect on the integrity of the neighbouring Swale site of special scientific interest, which also enjoys Ramsar designation due to its use by three wintering waterbird species. 

They also judged that the "adverse effects of the proposed development on landscape and visual effects should be given moderate weight in the planning balance". 

The secretary of state agreed with them on both points. 

Gareth Phillips, planning partner at Pinsent Masons, said: “This is a significant step forward for the future of the UK energy sector and heralds a new wave of large-scale solar and battery energy storage projects - essential for helping the UK meet its ambitious net zero targets and re-firing its economy post Covid-19. 

“As the first and largest project of its kind, it has required a wholesale change of approach to solar park development in the UK. As such, the solutions developed to successfully obtain this consent will pave the way for similar projects for years to come and encourage future investment in this area.”

Chris Hewett, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association, said: “Today the government has shown that it recognises the vital contribution solar can make to Britain’s energy mix. This is a major milestone on the road towards a UK powered by clean, affordable renewables."

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