Greenbelt battery storage compound refused over toxic gas explosion fears

Large green rectangular storage containers from the air
An example of a battery storage compound, although the one proposed in South Gloucestershire would be many times bigger with 176 containers -Credit:Architectural & Surveying Services Ltd.

Councillors have refused plans for a massive battery storage compound that would “industrialise” the greenbelt north of Bristol amid fears of “toxic gas plumes in a lithium explosion” near homes. But the fate of the proposed energy plant now lies in the hands of a more senior South Gloucestershire Council planning committee because the decision went against officers’ advice to approve.

The 200-megawatt facility at Earthcott Green Farm, near Alveston, would store energy produced by renewable sources such as solar for when it is needed most during peak hours in the evening and could power 500,000 homes for two hours during an outage on the National Grid, preventing a blackout. It would have 176 battery storage containers, each measuring 3m high and 6m long, a 15m communication tower, substation, transformers, 4m lighting/CCTV columns and a 2.5m perimeter fence surrounding the six-hectare site.

A planning officer told the development management committee that it would result in the “industrialisation” of a rural area and was deemed generally “inappropriate development” but that the public benefits outweigh the harms and recommended granting permission. But members refused consent by 5-3 votes.

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Alveston parish councillor Marion Reeve told the meeting: “It’s not like a battery you put in a car, lithium is much more dangerous. The concern is this is so close to residential properties – these people are at risk of toxic gas plumes in a lithium explosion.

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“We are not talking about a torch battery, we are talking about something quite dangerous. You wouldn’t dream of putting a nuclear system 120 yards from houses.”

A fire in 2020 at a battery energy storage system in Liverpool, which had a capacity 10 times smaller than the proposed Earthcott Green plant, took 59 hours to extinguish and created a “significant blast”, councillors heard. Residents told the committee they would suffer from noise and light pollution which could also drive away protected species.

Robert Miles, chief executive and founder of Dursley-based applicants Immersa, said: “I can categorically reassure members that the technology being proposed today is safe. Not only are we proposing a different technology to the small number of reported incidents but they are highly sophisticated, have numerous built-in failsafes and are monitored 24 hours a day.

“The high-pressure gas that most of us have connected to our homes has a greater chance of explosion and fire than the batteries we use.” He said there was no objection from the fire service and that the site, which has low-quality agricultural soil, had been chosen because it was near an enormous substation connecting the national and local electricity networks.

Both the council’s ecologist and landscape officer deemed the plans to be acceptable with conditions such as tree and hedgerow planting. But Cllr Paul Hughes (Conservative, Bitton & Oldland Common) said: “This is absolutely inappropriate development in the greenbelt. It has no justification whatsoever.

“It’s a massive experiment that this country is going through with green energy – that people can put an industrial complex in the middle of the countryside is just unbelievable. Before we know where we are, half of South Gloucestershire will be covered in solar batteries. I’m absolutely incensed by this thing.”

Cllr June Bamford (Conservative, Hanham) said: “I’m unhappy with this application. Throughout the officer’s report we’re told there will be harm to the greenbelt and heritage assets.

“This is totally inappropriate development in the greenbelt, which outweighs any public benefits. This application is wholesale industrialisation in the greenbelt with these massive containers and associated structures.

“How many of these horrendous looking battery containers are we going to need in the greenbelt over the country?” She said officers had assessed that the site would still be visible from some viewpoints after 15 years of plant and tree growth.

Cllr Jayne Stansfield (Lib Dem, Thornbury ) told the meeting on Thursday, May 9, that the facility was “just a bigger version” of a house that runs off solar panels in the day and then batteries stored in the garage at night. The plans will now go to the spatial planning committee for a final decision.