Sunnica plans 'should be sent back to drawing board' - Matt Hancock MP

West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock said the Sunnica Energy Farm plans should be "sent straight back to the drawing board"

West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock said he supports solar but the Sunnica Energy Farm plans in his constituency should be "stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board" - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock has said the Sunnica Energy Farm plans should be "stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board".

The MP, whose constituency is affected by the proposal, claimed there were "significant safety issues" over 'battery farms' when speaking on March 9 at Westminster Hall.

The proposal is for the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) generating panels and on-site battery energy storage systems (BESS) across four sites within Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, spanning 2,782 acres of agricultural land.

The sites are essentially north of Newmarket and skirt around Burwell, Exning, Snailwell, Kennett, Red Lodge, Barton Mills, Chippenham, Forham, Worlington, West Row, Freckenham and Isleham. 

The scheme would have a 40-year lifespan and become the largest solar farm proposal in the UK.

Say No to Sunnica signs up in Freckenham Picture: STEVE WILSON

Say No to Sunnica signs in Freckenham - Credit: Steve Wilson

There is huge opposition to the plans from local communities, with West Suffolk Council expected to be amongst the latest to say it objects to the development consent order application.

Speaking during the Westminster Hall debate, Mr Hancock said: "As a supporter of solar, I find that the proposal, which will affect areas in and close to my constituency, is actively undermining local support for solar energy. 

"It should be stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board, so that we can have a reasonable conversation about where solar will be welcomed locally. 

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"We can put the battery technology where it ought to be - in an industrial area - and we can make sure that we bring the community together with us in support of vital renewable technologies, rather than trying to ram projects through against the wishes of local people."

He claimed a very significant chunk of the energy - a much bigger chunk than the solar energy generated - would be from a battery farm, adding they should not be in the middle of the countryside.

"Furthermore, there are significant safety issues," he said. "I was sceptical of the arguments about safety issues until I looked into them in detail; there have been 38 fires at battery energy storage systems across the world in the last three years."

He said the battery technology means that water cannot be used to put out the fires. 

Amongst his points during the debate, Mr Hancock also said there had been "minimal public engagement" by Sunnica over the plans.

Councils are also voicing their opposition to Sunnica's plans. Stock photo

Councils are also voicing their opposition to Sunnica's plans. Stock photo - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

In its application, Sunnica said it would generate power exceeding 50 megawatts and had reduced the land to be occupied by 189 hectares since work on the scheme began in 2015 to address concerns over its scale.

A spokesperson from Sunnica said: "We take safety extremely seriously and have published an Outline Battery Fire Safety Management Plan as part of our Development Consent Order (DCO) application.

"This sets out our proposed measures to reduce any risk of fire through procurement and design, and also details our proposed internal fire suppression and external firefighting systems.​ This plan was developed in consultation with the local fire authorities.

"Our proposals will make a significant contribution towards the national effort to achieve net zero by 2050. Our assessment indicates that an additional 957,334 tonnes CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) would be emitted to generate the equivalent amount of electricity over the operational lifetime of the proposed Sunnica Energy Farm based upon the projected grid energy mix."

The company did not agree with Mr Hancock’s characterisation of its public engagement.

The spokesman said: "We have offered briefings to Mr Hancock and briefed his office during the statutory consultation.

"We have conducted extensive public engagement, including two rounds of public consultation. While we were not able to hold public meetings during the second round of consultation in 2020 because of the pandemic, we used a wide variety of techniques to make information about the proposals available to local people – including using telephone surgeries and printed materials for people who could not access the internet.

"The consultation process we carried out during statutory consultation was deemed to have met the requirements for our DCO application to be accepted for Examination by the Planning Inspectorate."