Ros Coward is an author, journalist, Emerita Professor of Journalism and nature lover. She was a columnist on the Guardian for many years often writing on environmental issues. She is author of, amongst other books, The Whole Truth: the myth of alternative health (Faber) and Nature Matters; collected articles on the environment (Desman Books).
The Threat to Graveney Marshes. When renewables aren’t always clean.
Most of us believe that the future of our energy supply has to include a large element of renewables. But does that mean the renewables industry is always squeaky clean? Or that its developments are always environmentally sound? The many people who love Graveney Marshes, an area in Kent of stark beauty with a rare feeling of remoteness in the crowded south east, answer those questions with a resounding ‘NO!’. The marshes are currently under threat from plans to build a vast solar plant which will devastate the landscape and its wildlife. Renewable developments can sometimes be very dirty indeed.
For anyone who loves marshy landscapes, and the birdlife that lives there, Graveney Marshes is a special place. I often walk here following the Saxon shore way as it traces the coast passing along the northern edge of the marshes. Whatever the weather, its always a wonderful walk with wide skies, the occasional sight of a Thames barge in the distance, and a sense of emptiness. It’s also a walk that always brings exciting bird sightings. It’s not unusual to see a marsh harrier hanging in the air over the reedbeds on the landward side of the sea wall, while in winter there are huge groups of brent geese, sometimes resting in the fields, sometimes gathering in huge noisy flocks on the sea. There are other delights too: lapwings and golden plovers in the fields in winter, skylarks in spring, reed buntings in the reeds, and a wheatear often accompanies me, keeping a few metres ahead of us on the sea wall. Not surprisingly, with such rich birdlife, the land on three sides of the Graveney Marshes has important wildlife designations; a RAMSAR site, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an SPA.
But this lovely area is currently the location of plans to build the biggest-ever solar plant in the British Isles. The proposal, from Hive Energy and Wirsol, is to cover 1000 acres (the size of 640 football pitches) with massive panels. The area to be taken is so big it’s the same footfall as the market town of nearby Faversham. Cleve Hill Solar Farm is a purely commercial development, not looking for funding or subsidy, and because of its size and the amount of electricity it claims it will feed into the grid, it is being put forward as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Development. These NSID proposals don’t have to go through the normal local planning laws and instead are submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for decisions to be made by the Department of State for Energy.
To make this a commercially viable, unsubsidised, project the developers are adopting a controversial design to fit in as many panels as possible. The panels will be the height of double decker buses and laid in an east-west orientation creating, in effect, a lid, like the solar farms seen in deserts. In addition, huge battery storage will be needed so energy can be held and released when it is at its most expensive, designed to encourage speculators into the industry.
The area of Graveney Marshes subject to these plans is currently farmland. The developers claim this is of poor quality having been subject to intensive agriculture. They claim they can improve its biodiversity as it is not at the moment very important for wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth. The area is, as already mentioned, surrounded by an SSSI, a Ramsar site and an SPA which is the most important international designation. My amateurish bird spotting of many interesting birds on these fields is backed up by expert observation. At least six Schedule 1 birds including snow bunting, hen harrier, marsh harrier, peregrine, bearded tit, and Cetti’s warbler, have been recorded in the fields. In short, the area is crucial to the functional integrity of the designated areas. Some farmers in the area, working with RSPB, have proved their land, already widely used by birds, can pretty quickly be improved with remarkable results. This summer black-winged stilt nested in the area. This is improving biodiversity on farmland not building an industrial plant on it.
The claims from developers that they can improve biodiversity are typical of what environmental campaigners are up against these days. Most developers now splash greenwash liberally around. Here the developers claim they will ‘mitigate’ any negative environmental effects, using the area beneath the panels for grazing, and introducing areas with enhanced biodiversity (some of which areas are already a Local Nature Reserve). It’s all just words. How can you mitigate loss of land vital to the functional integrity of these important protected areas? In any case, solar farms on this scale aren’t without environmental critics. It’s known that most such farms are sprayed with herbicide to reduce ‘weeds’ around panels, and that closely aligned panels in a lid formation can cause desertification. Worries have been expressed by American researchers that the lid effect of glittering panels can confuse wading birds which try to land of them believing it’s water (the lake effect). That seems plausible given that snipe are sometimes trapped by laying out silver paper. There are even suggestions that huge developments of this kind can create a mini climate change, warming up the immediate area.
It’s not just the greenwash which infuriates me. It’s the danger that proposals like this might bypass democratic accountability. Campaigners against this development as well as local councillors point out that the south east is under incredible development pressure. This particular area has numerous huge housing developments already under construction. Why, the campaigners are demanding, can’t developers of these housing estates be compelled to fit solar panels onto the roofs of these new builds? And why shouldn’t this solar plant be built on a brownfield site: there’s the decommissioned Kingsnorth power station nearby as well as the under-occupied Pfizer campus at Sandwich.
But will the Secretary of State for Energy consider this proposal in relation to its alternatives? And in relation to all the other development in the area? Or in the context of what more could be done domestically to increase solar energy before building on a beautiful and special area? Does the Department have an overall strategy for making sure such developments are in the right place and not environmentally damaging themselves? We can hope so. But we should also fear this decision might be considered in isolation, on its own terms, which means of course, its economic terms.
What’s particularly depressing about this proposal is that there is an alternative – exciting – vision for this area. In 1953 there were catastrophic floods all along the Thames Estuary and this area remains particularly at risk. There’s a sea wall and the beach area has been built up with shingle. But the long term prognosis is not great. With climate change and lack of shingle to feed the beach in perpetuity, this area had been designated by the Environment Agency, in consultation with local stakeholders, for managed realignment. This means allowing the sea wall to be breached and the land behind returned to salt marsh. In the long run this will give the best protection for local towns like Faversham and Whitstable as it would soak up flood water. And environmentalists also see in this an amazing opportunity – to let this area go wild like the north Norfolk coast creating a unique re-wilded area in Kent.
The developers are claiming they’ll take over maintenance of the sea wall in order to protect this development, thus stopping in its tracks the ecologically exciting idea of a saltmarsh and a natural coastline. I’m still hoping that the opposition put up by organisations like RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust will put enough effort into stopping the development. Because this is the kind of future our wildlife needs, not degraded grazing land under a solar panel lid.