Pictured Above: Representatives of Convergent Energy and Power were all smiles at the ribbon cutting for their Warwick BESS project in May. Batteries at two of their three BESS facilities there failed during rainstorms in late June. | Orange & Rockland Utilities photo.

Update 8.22.23:

The Southampton Town Board voted unanimously today to approve this moratorium.

Original Story Follows:

After hearing again from a plethora of Hampton Bays residents opposed to a 100-megawatt Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) not far from the Shinnecock Canal on Aug. 8, the Southampton Town Board is slated to vote this Tuesday, Aug. 22, on a six-month moratorium on proposals for BESS systems in the town.

The town’s move comes in the wake of several fires at BESS energy storage sites in New York, and as regional public sentiment has turned against these utility-scale lithium battery storage systems, which renewable energy advocates say are key to storing renewable energy in a future in which the grid no longer relies on fossil fuels.

Southold Town enacted a six-month moratorium on BESS systems in April while a new task force works to draft code to regulate them — the town’s code is currently silent on this emerging technology. Riverhead Town adopted rules for siting of BESS systems this April.

Southampton Town is in a different situation — it drafted code to regulate BESS systems back in 2020, but few people were aware or commented when the legislation, which allowed the systems to be placed on residentially zoned property, was approved in the midst of the Covid lockdown. Residents say they expect the town to more thoroughly review properly siting these facilities and the potential danger of fires alongside evacuation routes and environmentally sensitive areas, as well as in neighborhoods where people live. They also asked for training for volunteer firefighters who would be the first to respond to BESS fires.

As local governments work to understand the issues driving public sentiment against BESS, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, whose office was quick to note that BESS fires “are exceedingly rare,” convened a task force in late July to look into safety issues in the wake of recent fires at BESS facilities in East Hampton, in Warwick, NY and in Lyme, NY in Jefferson County, near the Canadian border.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s BESS Failure Event Database contains just 63 BESS failure events worldwide since 2011, but four of the five most recent events occurred this summer in New York. The industry is also rapidly expanding, with the total capacity of BESS systems in the United States increasing by 80 percent in 2022. By the end of 2022, there were more than 400 BESS systems in the country, according to EIA data, with a total capacity of 8.8 gigawatts.

The East Hampton fire, on May 31, was in a 5 megawatt BESS system, the East Hampton Energy Storage Center, recently commissioned by National Grid in a partnership with NextEra Energy at an electric substation on Cove Hollow Road. The fires at two sites in Warwick in Orange County on June 26 and June 27 are believed to have been triggered by heavy rainstorms. The units were located in residential areas near three schools and a bus depot. The July 27 fire in the village of Chaumont in the town of Lyme, NY was at a 5 megawatt system in a rural area, where it was integrated into a solar farm. All four sites used lithium-ion batteries, and the sites in Warwick and East Hampton had just been put into service this spring.

Many new projects being proposed now, including the Canal BESS project, are slated to use lithium iron phosphate batteries, also known as LFPs, which have to date been shown to have a lower potential for thermal runaway and the release of flammable gases than lithium ion batteries.

While no one was injured in the fires, which occurred in battery storage containment trailers, nearby residents and business employees were asked to shelter in place while potentially toxic smoke dissipated.

“Following multiple fire safety incidents across New York, I’ve directed state agencies to immediately form the Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group to mobilize the personnel and resources necessary to keep New Yorkers safe,” said Governor Hochul just after the Lyme fire on July 28. “The Working Group will collaborate with first responders and local leaders to identify best practices, address potential risks to public safety, and ensure energy storage sites across New York are safe and effective.”

According to Governor Hochul’s office, the working group “will thoroughly investigate the recent energy storage fires in New York and will conduct a comprehensive fire safety review, including emergency response analysis, of energy storage projects that experienced thermal runaway events across New York. Findings will include a list of recommendations for stationary energy storage equipment and installations. The Working Group would review energy storage system operations and operators as they: examine the condition of their batteries to verify operation within design parameters; remedy any deficiencies identified; verify operation of on-site fire suppression; and confirm fire suppression plans with local fire departments, among other best practices.”

The group’s findings and recommendations will be shared with the New York City Fire Department, National Fire Protection Association, International Code Council, the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code Council, and Underwriters Laboratories.

“Keeping New Yorkers safe is our number one job, and our team quickly responded to the fire in Jefferson County conducting air monitoring to ensure nearby residents were not in immediate danger,” said the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Commissioner Jackie Bray in the governor’s announcement of the formation of the working group. “We remain on the ground to address this fire and assist the investigation. These sites are essential to securing our climate future and Governor Hochul is taking action to ensure they are operated safely. We are working with our agency partners on long-term solutions to mitigate future energy-related fires throughout the state.”

After blasting a proposed three-month moratorium on BESS systems that did not include the Canal BESS project, under review by the town’s planning board, at a July 11 public hearing, Southampton Town held a new public hearing Aug. 8 on a proposed six month moratorium that did include the Canal BESS project.

After Canal BESS’s attorney, Keith Archer, took to the podium to ask the Town Board to exempt his client’s project be exempted, he was followed by a chorus of neighbors of the proposed project who reiterated their opposition to it. Few spoke about the moratorium at the hearing, instead blasting the town, its planning staff and its sustainability committee for their past support of the technology, and calling for the resignation of the town’s Planning and Development Administrator.

“The Canal BESS case gets curiouser and curiouser,” said Ed Gillespie of Hampton Bays, reading a letter by resident Marion Bowden. “Members of the town’s own sustainability committee who have been prepped by a town consultant paid to rebut their arguments, referred to them as people who are unable to understand, people who get their information from social media and Wikipedia, and then at a subsequent special town board meeting they hear town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer and Town Councilman John Bouvier muse that a lithium ion demonstration (project) may help them understand or a reduction in their electric bill may change their minds…. It’s hard to keep faith in a system so charged with controversial behavior and questionable ethics.”

“Many of us are tired, and we don’t want to hear the sustainability people telling us about NYSERDA regulations,” said James Dubrowski. “There are no public safety officers here. There’s massive, town-wide community opposition.”

“I flagged this for my community, which ran with educating themselves about it,” said Margaret Friedlander, a Hampton Bays resident who is running for Town Trustee on the Democratic party line. She added that she is proud of her community for the research they’ve done, and she hopes the town realizes that “lithium ion batteries are not sustainable at all” and their use is not in keeping with the town’s environmental goals.

“The sustainability committee portrays massive BESS facilities as benign and residents as hopelessly confused,” said Liz Hook of Hampton Bays. “The sustainability committee members are hopelessly confused, or they’re disingenuous shills for the corporate interests building these facilities…. Their business plan is to buy electricity at night and sell it back to the grid when the rates are higher. Make no mistake. This is about big business and moneymaking.”

“This is a hearing on a moratorium, not on a specific proposal, though it affects this proposal and all other proposals,” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman after the town board heard more than two hours of testimony. “This has been a learning curve here. I thought these things were pretty benign… If you asked me today, ‘would you live next door’, I would say no. But we do need to change some of our energy infrastructure to address the warming planet.”

“There were a lot of things said today, and some things I frankly have to respond to,” he added. “Our planning department is incredible and Janice Scherer is an incredible public servant. Her record of accomplishments is long and I’m incredibly proud of her. I consider myself fortunate to work with her.

“We have heard the community,” he added. “None of us want to put anybody at risk, keep them from sleeping at night or pollute the ground or surface water… I’m sorry you’re fearing for your public health and safety. My intention is to support a six-month moratorium. It can absolutely be extended.”

He added that it was imperative for the town to bring in experts on the subject who aren’t working for the industry, and to keep abreast of the state working group’s review, as it drafts new code to regulate BESS systems.

“We need to make sure we are taking this moment seriously and it’s not just a stalling tactic,” he added.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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