Pictured Above: Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell (Standing, Center) at the Cutchogue Civic Association Forum on Battery Energy Storage Systems.

The Southold Town Board is likely to put a proposal for a moratorium on battery energy storage facilities up for a public hearing in February, said board members at their Jan. 17 work session. The moratorium would be designed to give the town a chance to develop siting and safety guidelines for the facilities.

Several potential developers of battery energy storage systems, known in the industry as BESS, are “trying to lock up land in lease options,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell at the work session. “Once they’ve signed a lease option away, they’re stuck with living with it…. That’s a little unfair to them. They have a right to know whether to enter a lease.”

In addition to a hotly contested application by Key Capture Energy in Cutchogue currently before the town’s planning and zoning boards, Mr. Russell said both Hawkeye Energy and Blue Wave Solar are considering building BESS systems on the North Fork.

While New York Governor Kathy Hochul has set a goal of establishing 6 gigawatts of battery energy storage throughout the state by 2030, the New York State Energy Research Development Agency (NYSERDA) is urging local governments to establish Battery Energy Storage Task Forces to help draft town code so that local municipalities can establish siting and safety standards for the systems.

“There’s a growing, tremendous interest in battery energy storage systems,” said Mr. Russell, adding that the systems are considered an essential component to storing renewable energy. “But this is a brand new use. We don’t have code for it.”

Southold’s new town attorney, Paul DeChance, said Key Capture Energy’s current proposal shouldn’t even be before the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals right now, where they are seeking a “special exception use” for a public utility use in a Light Industrial Zone. While a public utility use is allowed in this zoning district if the ZBA grants a special exception use permit, Mr. DeChance argued that battery storage, installed by a private company, is not a public utility.

“It’s not a permitted use, so a use variance can never be established,” he said. “The Zoning Board took the application in as a special exception, but that application should not be pending before the Zoning Board.”

He added that town code “needs to be designed through a moratorium process. That would give the ZBA the ability to vet the application.”

Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said that she believes “battery storage is the only path to green energy,” and added that it’s possible in tie future the state will mandate these systems be installed without asking for town’s input.

“I don’t see this, in the future, as being optional,” she said. “If the governor is as committed as she says she is, this is going to be legislated. Each town is going to have these facilities.”

“It can take six, eight or 10 years to get from idea phase to shovel-in-the-ground,” said Councilman Greg Doroski. “Even this proposal [Key Capture Energy] has already put in a year or two’s work picking the site and specking it out.”

The board could introduce legislation for the moratorium as soon as its next meeting Jan. 31, in anticipation of holding a public hearing in February.

The work session discussion came just days after the Cutchogue Civic Association held a well-attended forum on Battery Energy Storage Systems on Jan. 12 at the Peconic Lane Recreation Center. Just prior to that forum, Mr. Russell had issued a press release saying the town would consider the moratorium.

(L-R) Philip Denara of Key Capture Energy, Rudy Sunderman of the Suffolk County Fire Academy and Nick Petrakis of Emergency Safety Response Group at the Cutchogue Civic Association forum.
(L-R) Philip Denara of Key Capture Energy, Rudy Sunderman of the Suffolk County Fire Academy and Nick Petrakis of Energy Safety Response Group at the Cutchogue Civic Association forum.

At the forum, Key Capture Energy Senior Manager of Development Philip Denara said he had heard about the possible moratorium just as the forum had begun, but added that his company is prepared to wait out the process for the long haul.

“This project is not proposed to be built prior to 2025,” he said, adding that, while the project does not currently have a signed contract to sell the electricity stored there to PSEG-Long Island, “it does not necessarily need it.”

PSEG-Long Island issued a Request for Information from prospective battery energy storage systems on the North Fork in 2020, and was expected to issue a more formal Request for Proposals late last year, though that RFP has not yet been issued.

Much of the public concern about the proposal in Cutchogue has been due to the potential fire hazards associated with lithium ion batteries, which can experience what’s known as a “thermal runaway,” in which an overheating battery cell can ignite and cause the overheating of adjacent cells.

At the forum, Suffolk County Fire Academy Deputy Director Rudy Sunderman gave an overview of the training on BESS systems available for local volunteer firefighters.

While much of the Fire Academy’s lithium ion battery training involves smaller batteries found in automobiles, the academy works with the Energy Safety Response Group to provide training to departments that have BESS systems in their fire district, said Mr. Sunderman. He added that most of the training involves classroom presentations on how BESS systems work, along with tours of the BESS facilities with the personnel that run them.

Many modern BESS systems installed after the National Fire Protection Agency’s standards went into effect in 2020 compartmentalize the batteries, with a fire suppression system in each compartment.

Key Capture’s 60 megawatt proposal in Cutchogue contains 272 individual battery storage containers, designed to prevent thermal runaway from occurring.

But members of the public were unconvinced that this training was adequate.

“Have you actually trained on a fire with lithium ion batteries?” said Bill Bramble, who lives on Oregon Road, where the Cutchogue BESS system is proposed. A former submariner, Mr. Bramble said lithium ion batteries aren’t used on nuclear submarines because “if there’s an emergency, we’re in trouble.” He added that hands-on fire training is an essential part of a submariner’s education.

Nick Petrakis of the Energy Safety Response Group (ESRG), said his company is comprised of former FDNY firefighters and engineers who helped develop the standards for BESS systems in New York City.

“A high rise in New York City is like a vertical submarine to us,” he said. “Lithium ion was scary to us five years ago, when in New York City we were in this exact position, considering a moratorium. We did not have the information we have now. We had to figure out how something like this is installed in New York City, where the need is so great.”

“This technology has to go through strenuous testing, with very strict installation codes,” he added. “New York State has some of the more stringent requirements in the country.”

He added that ESRG has a fire test lab where they “force a battery into thermal runaway failure.”

He added that, while local volunteer firefighters aren’t directly trained in the test lab situation, the test lab data is used to inform their training.

Another member of the audience asked why Key Capture Energy’s “Korean owner decided to focus its development projects on us instead of Korea.”

Mr. Denara said Key Capture Energy was founded in the United States and is headquartered in Albany, and the Korean multinational energy company SK E&S bought a majority interest in the company in 2021.

“Somebody has to fund the projects. SK is committed to clean energy transition,” he said, adding that SK is also working on manufacturing batteries for the Ford F-150 Lightning.

“Clean energy is a multinational investment to employ projects that make a difference at the local level,” he added.

NYSERDA Senior Project Manager Ian Latimer said that Li-Cycle, the largest lithium ion recycling facility in the United States, is a Canadian company that has located in Rochester because of the state’s commitment to renewable energy.

“This is designed to attract people to come do business in New York,” he said. “Interest follows business opportunities, and they’re creating an environment that is attractive to do business.”

BESS systems are designed to store energy at times of low demand and place that energy back on the grid at times of high demand. Part of New York’s aim, said Mr. Latimer, is to use these systems in place of aging “peaker plants,” which are inefficient gas and oil-fired electric plants that operate at times of peak demand.

There are five peaker plant units on the North Fork, including four in Greenport, one of which is operated by Hawkeye Energy, and one in Southold. Several larger peaker plants are located in the Shoreham/Wading River area, according to Mr. Latimer.

One member of the public said he was cynical about the economic structure of BESS systems, in which power was purchased at a lower price and sold at a higher price.

“The deal for us as end-users is a bad deal,” he said.

Mr. Denara said that the wholesale energy market is currently set up so that BESS developers would be bidding to supply electricity to consumers in the same market as other sources of energy, including those derived from fossil fuels, and his company would have to place a competitive bid in order to win the right to sell that energy to consumers.

“Take solar on the roofs. We love that. It’s great,” said Mr. Latimer. “But it’s generating electricity in the late morning and the afternoon, but not when we need it. That’s not the time of peak demand. It doesn’t coincide. Energy storage gives us the ability to take the extra power our houses are making in the middle of the day, and put it back on the grid later in the afternoon when we’re running our air conditioners and coming home from work.”

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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