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Consent granted for the UK's biggest solar farm


On 28 May, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy granted a Development Consent Order for Cleve Hill Solar Park in Kent.

Amongst its impressive credentials, Cleve Hill will become the UK's largest solar farm with a capacity of up to 350 MW, comprising almost 900,000 photovoltaic panels and with the option to incorporate the UK's largest energy storage facility, itself covering 25 acres of land. The joint venture between Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy is expected to begin development in Spring 2021 and be operational in 2022.

The solar farm is expected to have a lifetime unit cost as low as £62.67 per MWh, a competitive cost driven down by the economies of scale available to large developments. The developers incorporated a biodiversity management plan with a 65% net gain and a vast area set aside for overwintering birds, as well as a managed realignment programme at the end of the site's 40 year operational life, to return the area to marshland.

Cleve Hill may, however, lose its title as the UK's largest solar farm even before the developers break ground – Sunnica is a proposed 500 MW solar farm in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and is expected to be the subject of a DCO application this year.

The grant of the Cleve Hill DCO in the face of considerable local and in some cases national opposition (Greenpeace, for example, opposed the development) is one of several reasons to be cheerful about the future of the UK renewables market. The UK Government is expected to re-admit solar projects to the Contracts for Difference scheme in 2021, demand for renewable energy saw a modest increase during the COVID-19 crisis while demand for traditional energy fell dramatically, and the Committee on Climate Change has recommended that the Government support the development of low carbon infrastructure as part of its COVID-19 recovery package. Positive headlines abound: as at the time of writing, the UK is on Day 48 of coal-free power generation, and renewables contributed up to 60% of overall generation on certain days in April.

However, too much sun and wind coupled with low demand poses its own challenge for system operator National Grid ESO, with threats of blackouts and turning off renewable generation to reduce the risk of grid instability. No surprise then that in the case of Cleve Hill, the Secretary of State deemed "the proposed co-located battery energy storage system to be a factor of significant additional weight", though the developers retained the option to include further PV panels if the battery storage is ultimately unfeasible. The market is likely to be watching closely to see whether this game-changing scale of battery development is indeed workable.

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