Pictured Above: A rendering of the view of  the proposed Cutchogue battery energy storage facility as seen from Oregon Road facing southeast, prepared by Key Capture Energy for the site plan review.

The Southold Town Planning Board plans to rescind its letter of support to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a special exception permit for a new, 11-acre lithium ion battery energy storage facility in Cutchogue, the board’s chairman, Don Wilcenski, told a crowd gathered for a public hearing on the project Monday night, after receiving “hundreds of letters… a plethora of nothing but people opposing.”

“This is something that is brand new to all of us. I’ll take responsibility. We probably made a mistake in moving this forward,” said Mr. Wilcenski. “We live in this town. After reading about this over the last couple days, there’s a lot to take in, a lot of dangerous stuff involved here.”

Mr. Wilcenski said at the start of the hearing that the board would adjourn the hearing to a later not-yet-determined date, after which the board took about an hour-and-a-half of testimony from the applicants, Key Capture Energy, and from members of the public, most of whom objected to the siting of the project along one of the most scenic backroads in Southold Township.

The town’s Zoning Board of Appeals also held a public hearing on three separate requests for relief from the town code on Dec. 1. After much public concern about the safety of the proposed battery system, the ZBA adjourned that hearing to a special meeting Jan. 19, 2023, by which time the ZBA said they hoped the applicant will have met with the Cutchogue Fire Department to discuss the fire department’s concerns.

“There’s clearly a great deal at stake in this application, and there will be more of them,” said ZBA Chairwoman Leslie Weisman before adjourning that public hearing.

The newly formed Cutchogue Civic Association will also be holding a public meeting with Key Capture Energy on Thursday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Free Library.

Battery energy storage facilities are becoming a local hot-button issue across the country as the U.S. looks to transition to renewable energy and communities learn more about the risks and changes to the grid that they will entail.

Hazards associated with battery storage systems include off-gassing of the batteries, which can lead to conditions that cause an explosion like one that occurred at a battery energy storage system in Surprise, Ariz. in 2019, or in a worst-case scenario, a “thermal runaway,” in which an overheating battery cell can ignite and cause the overheating of adjacent cells, according to the National Fire Protection Agency.

These hazards do vary depending on the chemistry of the batteries involved.

Key Capture Energy representatives told the Zoning Board they were planning to use lithium iron phosphate batteries, which were “most likely to not have a thermal runaway,” adding that the toxicity of those gasses was “in line with a structure fire under typical conditions today.” They added that they have commissioned a third party review of the safety of their proposal for the community and the board.

Key Capture Energy Senior Manager of Development Phil Denara said the 272 battery energy storage containers proposed in the 60 megawatt project “are equipped with a number of key safety systems including Battery Management System, which monitors battery voltage, current and temperature. The software can autonomously shut down the unit and disconnect the battery if a threshold is met.” 

“There is also an internal fire suppression system (within each container), heat, smoke, and gas detection systems, exhaust ventilation system, as well as a number of electrical fault protections to limit the potential for failure to occur and mitigate the impact of a battery failure,” he added.

By comparison, in the Surprise, Ariz. fire, in which four firefighters were injured, there were 10,584 lithium nickel manganese cobalt batteries organized in modules and racks in a walk-in enclosure, installed in 2017, prior to the NFPA’s Rule 855 governing standards for battery energy storage systems.

Anne Murray, who spoke at the Planning Board hearing on behalf of the North Fork Environmental Council, where she serves as the Southold Land Use Coordinator, said the New York State Energy Research Development Agency (NYSERDA) recommends towns form a task force of local stakeholders to ensure “the orderly development and safety of these projects.”

She added that battery storage was not raised as an issue in Southold’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan.

“Southold Town has not planned for, nor has it developed any kind of laws governing the placement of these kinds of facilities,” she said. “The town owes it to the public to ensure environmental standards and safety reviews.”

She added that, “due to lack of planning, the Southold ZBA approved [battery energy storage] in a completely inappropriate location in Greenport a couple years ago. There was simply no battery storage law or plan in place to prevent it.”

The applicants for the Greenport project, Saivon Energy, have not submitted a site plan to the Southold Planning Board for review, though the did receive a special exception use permit from the Zoning Board allowing a public utility on the Greenport site, which, like the Cutchogue site, was zoned Light Industrial.

PSEG-Long Island issued a Request for Information in 2020 from prospective battery energy storage developers for up to 130 megawatts of battery energy storage on the North Fork, though the energy company has not yet issued a more formal Request for Proposals.

Cutchogue Civic Association President David Bergen, who spoke at both the Zoning Board and Planning Board hearings, said he believes residents should bring their concerns about this type of development in general to the town board, which is the only government body in Southold that can change the zoning rules the town’s land use boards must live by.

Kevin O’Mara of Cutchogue told the Planning Board that more than 1,100 residents had signed a petition to limit battery energy storage facilities in town.

“Key Capture Energy is a South Korean conglomerate that buys energy off the grid and sells it at a higher price,” he said. “They’re like the guys who bout the hand sanitizer for $1 during Covid and tried to sell it for $10.”

“NYSERDA has actually put out model town laws that are supposed to be put out before you consider these plans, including emergency plans and decommissioning,” he added. “And their 12-foot sound barrier, that sounds to me like driving on the LIE. But I’m most amazed we’re having a meeting about putting a LIPA substation on Oregon Road.”

Shannon Sheridan-Chiaro of Mattituck, who recently returned home from college at Penn State, said that “this is shocking and surprising.”

“As a kid, there were a lot more farms and a lot more land,” she said. “When a company is even considered to come over from South Korea, it’s just a slap in the face. When I was in Mattituck track, we may have even run down that road as well. This opens the floodgates for more and more things like this to come in, and more and more places like Oregon Road where people try to insert their industrial stuff. We’re pretty smart. We’re not falling for it.”

Key Capture Energy, whose corporate offices are in Albany, has constructed projects in Saratoga and Rockland counties in New York and in Calhoun County, Texas. It is owned by SK E&S, a private South Korean company that was founded in 1999 and made its mark by importing liquified natural gas to South Korea. The company has gas fields in the United States, Indonesia and Australia.

“Everybody here loves this town. That’s why we’re here,” said Ben Kalamore of Cutchogue at the Planning Board hearing. “There’s no benefit to our townspeople to have this thing here. And to have a volunteer fire department fighting a fire in this area? That’s crazy. There’s no tangible benefit to us.”

“There are so many pink elephants in this room, it’s like a Disney movie,” said Brad Ascalon of Laurel. “I left New York City six years ago because of what big money did to that place. We’re having this battle all the time now. Every month, it’s another faction of big money that wants to change the character of this town. And, they plan to put it next to the town mulching facility, where toxins and fungals can contaminate the entire town.”

“My family has been 100 years farming here,” said Ian Zuhoski of Cutchogue at the Zoning Board meeting. “If the county and town can push IA [septic] systems, why can’t they push solar on homes instead of ruining farmland with this?”

“My family’s been farming 100 years on Oregon Road,” added Morgan Zuhoski Evans. “I envision my children running through fields barefoot and jumping in mud puddles. We want to keep things beautiful on the North Fork. People came out here from New York City because they wanted the beauty. Oregon Road is part of that beauty.”

“We all live here. We’re neighbors and we don’t want to see anything anywhere in town that will put our first responders and residents at risk,” said Ms. Weisman of the Zoning Board. “Nobody really wants anything anywhere, and that’s not going to happen. This property is zoned Light Industrial. I worry about our agriculturally zoned properties being put under pressure for development with solar, wind and battery technology. But where do you think it’s going to go? In neighborhoods with houses, it can’t go there. We can’t ignore the energy crisis we’re faced with. It is a crisis.”

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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