A farmer's field in rural Preston will be converted into a battery facility to store renewable energy until it is required by the national grid.

Preston City Council's planning committee approved the project for a block of land off Green Lane in Barton, where 64 storage units would be built. They will allow power generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar to be conserved for use during peak demand periods. Some members were concerned about the potential for a fire at the 45 megawatt construction, which will be located next to the M6.

One of them, Cllr Harry Landless, said he was surprised that there had not been any local opposition to the plans given the possibility of what he described as a “doomsday scenario”. Regarding the project that is being considered and is located north of Mount Pleasant Farm, not a single public comment has been given to the authority.

The technology involved was described as "novel" at the meeting, and council planning case officer Jonathan Evans mentioned "the potential risk of fire."

Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) recommended that the applicant, Baron Battery Storage, produce a risk reduction strategy, and the committee was told that the resultant document was considered by the fire brigade to be “satisfactory”.

However, LFRS noted that an “outline battery fire safety management plan” had not been prepared “by an accredited professional”, according to papers presented to the committee.

In its response to the proposal, the brigade said that it would “expect that safety measures and risk mitigation be developed in collaboration with the fire service”.

Members were told that the council was unable to impose conditions based on comments and recommendations from LFRS, as it was not a statutory consultee, but Mr. Evans said that the company had shown that it was “willing to engage” with the organisation.

Among the safety measures the fire service suggested was the inclusion of automatic fire detection and suppression systems in the development design. It also told the applicant to factor in “prevailing wind directions” when sitting the equipment in order “to minimise the impact of a fire involving lithium-ion batteries due to the toxic fumes produced”. Cllr Landless said that he found the proposal “very worrying” and predicted a “proliferation of these sites all over our countryside”.

“If this works here, there will be many more sites around rural north and rural east Preston where farmers—or the people who own the land—know that they can’t get permission for housing developments, so this will be the next best thing,” he said. Fellow committee member Stephen Thompson said that an industrial site in open countryside “shouldn’t be allowed” and also expressed concern over what he said was technology that was “very early on” in its development. 

National Highways had initially placed a holding objection on the plans, in part because of the potential impact of a fire on the safe operation of the M6. They raised concerns that if the battery technology caught fire, it would release black toxic smoke, which would be blown towards the motorway by the prevailing eastward winds and require the route to be shut down. 

National Highways withdrew its objection, however, subject to the submission of an emergency response plan, after the applicant engaged with road managers and produced a fire safety strategy.

Cllr. Jennifer Mein said she was “disappointed” that the fire service was not a statutory planning consultee, especially as battery storage facilities were likely to become “more and more common”. 

The council’s development management team leader, Phil Cousins, said that some of the health and safety concerns raised by the committee could be dealt with under building regulations, even if they were beyond the scope of the planning department Meanwhile, committee member Fiona Duke said that developments like the one being proposed were needed in order to keep the lights on, even if the rural location caused some of her colleagues to baulk. “For me, this is really species-poor grassland [and] they’re building a really effective screen. It is right next to a motorway, so it’s not a pristine habit or landscape,” Cllr Duke added.

Nobody from or on behalf of Barton Battery Storage addressed the committee, but in documents submitted with its application, the company said that “the risk of major accidents is very low” and that there was “no risk to human health” as a result of its plans. 

The application was approved by a majority, with Cllrs. Landless and Thompson voting against it. 

The scheme is contrary to some elements of local planning policy, which would usually preclude development of this scale in open countryside. However, both Central Lancashire’s planning strategy and national planning policy guidance support renewable and low-carbon energy projects, provided that they cause no unacceptable impact on the character of the landscape and that the adverse effects of any development do not outweigh its benefits. 

Transformers, a switching unit, a substation control room, and other associated equipment will be erected on the 1.1 acre area, in addition to the battery storage units.

Each battery unit will be housed in a metal box 3.1 metres high, 2.4 metres wide, and six metres long. They will sit on feet raised by 0.2 metres above ground level. 

The switch gear unit will take the form of a metal container, which will measure 3.1 metres by 12.2 metres and have a maximum height above ground level of 4.1 metres. For security, six infrared CCTV cameras will guard the site, palisade fencing will encase the plant equipment; and a four-metre-high acoustic fence will surround the battery compound. 

The committee meeting heard that while a battery storage scheme had been built at Red Scar Business Park in 2019, that development included a gas peaking power plant, meaning that the facility now approved in Barton was the first sole battery storage site in Preston.

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