Pictured Above: The site plan for the proposed Canal Southampton BESS project.
Residents of Hampton Bays are boisterously opposed to a large Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) just east of the Shinnecock Canal, and during nearly three hours of testimony July 11 they let the Southampton Town Board know they don’t believe a proposed three-month moratorium on new BESS applications that doesn’t include this application does enough to protect them from the potential risks of the project.
Town board members agreed after the hearing to draft a new, longer moratorium, potentially for six months, that could include existing site plan applications, which could be introduced as soon as their July 25 meeting. The board will not vote on the three-month moratorium for at least 30 days while it awaits a vote from the Suffolk County Planning Commission. If the county planning commission says ‘no’ to the moratorium, the Town Board could override their vote with a supermajority ‘yes’ vote of at least 4-1.
Town Supervisor Jay Scheiderman added that the Town Planning Board is considering reversing its “negative declaration” on the project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. If the Planning Board were to give the project a ‘positive declaration,’ the applicant would have to prepare a lengthy Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining its plans to mitigate the environmental risks.
Rhynland Energy first proposed the 100 megawatt BESS, known as Canal Southampton Battery Storage, LLC, in the fall of 2021, not long after Southampton Town adopted a code governing BESS systems in late 2020.
The code was adopted in the midst of the limited government interaction with the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, and while it was far ahead of other local municipalities, drafted using guidelines from the New York State Energy Research & Development Agency (NYSERDA), few members of the public provided feedback at the hearing before it was adopted.
One provision of that code allows BESS systems as a special exception use in several residential zoning districts. For people who live near the property, which is zoned R-60, inside of the off ramp for Exit 66 on Sunrise Highway, between the highway and North Road, potential siting of these storage systems in residential areas is a key sticking point in their request that the town revisit the code.
BESS systems, which store electricity to be returned to the grid at peak times, are believed by the utility industry and New York State regulators to be a necessary component of the transition from fossil fuels to intermittent renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar, which require storage in order to be used at times of high demand.
There has been much recent scrutiny nationwide of these utility-scale storage facilities, which rely on lithium-based battery chemistry which is changing rapidly as the industry develops and fire risks are mitigated.
BESS systems are heavily regulated and must meet far more stringent safety standards than batteries for ebikes or electric cars, but the public remains highly skeptical of the fire risks, especially in light of a fire earlier this summer at a new BESS system at a LIPA substation in East Hampton Village and at another new BESS in Warwick, NY. That fire was likely set off by water from a June 25 storm entering the compartmentalized system.
Since June 16, more than 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition organized by Hampton Bays resident Brigid Maher in opposition to the Canal BESS system.
“Every time there’s an incident or a fire at a BESS facility, proponents of BESS near peoples’ homes say ‘don’t worry. These things are safe,'” she told the Town Board at the July 11 hearing. “Our opposition is to putting an industrial facility like this in a residential neighborhood. We’re saying not in anyone’s backyard.”
“Six months ago, everyone was unaware what BESS is,” said Maria Hults, a longtime leader in the Hampton Bays Civic Association who recently resigned. “The first thing we should be doing is educating the public.”
She added that she was concerned that toxins could leak from the complex in the event of a fire, polluting Shinnecock Bay, which was recently named a “Hope Spot” by the international organization Mission Blue.
“It’s unconscionable that there’s the slightest possibility that we could pollute all of this,” she said. “We all support green energy and we know it should be somewhere. Don’t make a mess of our community in the name of conservation.”
Kristin Mielenhausen of Hampton Bays read a letter from commercial fisherman James Kraus, who was out working during the mid-afternoon hearing.
Mr. Kraus wrote that his perspective on the “Green Agenda” is that it’s subsidized to an extreme degree, and that he knows many fishermen who were paid for their lost work during the construction of the South Fork Wind Farm. He added that he’s heard reports about whales dying because of offshore wind farms.
NOAA fisheries has found “no known link between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys.” Humpback whales have been undergoing an Unusual Mortality Event along the U.S. Atlantic coast since 2016.
Mr. Kraus added that a worker for the South Fork Wind Farm who he met at the dock said that oil companies are also subsidized.
“Why aren’t farmers receiving subsidies, or fishermen?” he wrote.
Commodity farmers are one of the most highly subsidized industries in the United States.
Several members of the town’s Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee said they believe the town, and NYSERDA, should be doing a better job of public outreach about the real risks of BESS technology.
“I find it hard to fault their resentment if they’re getting their information from petitions or social media,” said Sustainable Southampton Co-Chair Dieter von Lehsten. “That does not give anyone the authority to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, which is what I fear this debate has become.”
“I don’t expect you to be experts on anything that comes across your desk,” said Lynn Arthur, who chairs the Energy Subcommittee of the Sustainable Southampton committee. “I do expect you to rely upon the expertise of town staff. There are a lot of credible organizations they can call on. Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for research.”
Ms. Arthur added that many lithium battery fires that have received media attention, including a 2020 fire in a now-outdated BESS facility in Surprise, Ariz. in which four firefighters were injured, and fires involving Teslas and ships carrying electric vehicles, all involved lithium nickel manganese cobalt batteries — which burn at a high temperature and cannot be contained with water — that were all made by the same manufacturer, LG Chem.
The batteries in this new BESS facility, she said, would be lithium iron phosphate, which is a far more stable technology that operates at a lower temperature, is less likely to release flammable gasses, and can be contained using water.
“New York State has lofty energy goals, but nowhere does there appear to be funding for BESS community education,” she said. “I hear Hampton Bays residents fear that a significant fire is possible, and their lack of confidence in the fire department to contain it. The answers to all their concerns are in the documentation provided by the applicant.”
Hampton Bays Civic Association Vice President Marion Boden said she believed a map on display in the town board meeting room was “craftily cropped” so attendees could not see how many homes surrounded it, or how it sits on a narrow spit of land at the bottleneck to the “East of the Canal” portion of the South Fork.
“We should not have to resort to legal action to protect our homes and families, but the will is there,” she said.
Steve Poulakis, owner of the Hampton Maid, an inn and restaurant on Montauk Highway just east of the canal, pointed out that traffic backs up in this location every day, just with trade workers coming to the Hamptons, and the traffic stays at a standstill for hours if there’s any type of moter vehicle accident.
“We’re all f*&%#d,” he said. “If this thing catches fire, or there’s a catastrophic event, nothing is going to move.”
Robert Colavito, a retired teacher in the Southampton school district, said that “if this facility were to catch fire, Shinnecock Hills and the surrounding area would go up like an inferno, with all the dead pitch pines” (due to the southern pine beetle infestation).
“This would be much worse than rush hour,” he said.
Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca said he believes the town developed its code in good faith, but the fact that it was put in place in the midst of the pandemic put the public vetting process “kinda of out of sequence.”
“We ended up here as a fluke. It’s a weird thing. We never had 2020 before,” he said. “This discussion is healthy and important. Tap the brakes. Look at the zoning code you have, and ultimately the public has an opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making. The best policy comes out of good process.”
“I read all day long about climate change,” said Lena Tabori, a member of East Hampton’s Energy & Sustainability Committee who runs a website called Climate Change Resources. “I hear about being angry or afraid, and I need to say what we really need to be afraid and angry about is slow motion (on climate solutions). The problem ahead of us is global and also very local, and it’s something we can’t wait on, both from a mitigation standpoint and an adaptation standpoint.”
“This is the realm of disinformation that has entered our world,” she added. “Like all technology, BESS has a life cycle, and codes and emergency management plans are all going to evolve as we learn from experts.”
“In the East Hampton BESS incident, this is one that was completely contained,” she added, pointing out that no one was injured and the fire did not spread from the compartment where it ignited. “We’re waiting for an understanding of how that fire occurred. I’m as eager for that as all of you are.”
“At no time here did anyone create a land use code to put anyone in peril,” said Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer, adding that she understands the distrust between the town and the Hampton Bays community after a consultant hired last year to work on the hamlet’s downtown overlay district put plans in writing in a public document to “neutralize” opposition to to the overlay district.
“We’re committed to getting it right, just as much as you are,” she added. “We don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way. We’re looking into places that serve the people there. In Hampton Bays, there are no industrial zones. We’re looking to have coastal resiliency and a backup plan for when the lights go out. If battery storage has no place in our community, where are we going to go?”