As moratoriums on new Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) continue in Southold and Southampton towns this winter, a state task force convened last summer to investigate three BESS fires in New York has released a draft of 15 proposed fire code changes to help prevent and mitigate fires.

The report, released Feb. 6, comes as the Southampton Town Board is considering a six-month extension of a moratorium on consideration of new BESS facilities due to expire on Feb. 13. The Southampton Town Board will hold a public hearing on the moratorium at its 1 p.m. meeting Feb. 13. Southold Town enacted a one-year moratorium on new BESS facilities last April, which is due to expire this spring.

BESS facilities are designed to store electric power to be released to the grid during times of high demand, and they are considered by New York State to be a crucial part of its conversion to a renewable energy-based grid, in which power is not necessarily produced at the same time as high demand. They are expected to replace aging fossil-fuel powered “peaker plants” throughout the state.

Suffolk County Planning Commission staff recommended approval of Southampton’s proposed moratorium extension at the Commission’s Feb. 7 meeting, after hearing from the town that it was awaiting the state Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group’s code recommendations and is looking to working to “create an inter-municipal working group to share resources and work to retain a professional land use consultant to create a scope of work that can be utilized for planning more specific locations with stakeholders from the community that may be appropriate for a varied scale of facilities.”

Southampton Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer said, in addition to waiting for the state report, the town had met with its Fire Marshall and Public Safety leaders and PSEG-Long Island and LIPA representatives “and have also been talking to the Town of Huntington and our neighboring East End Towns as the new Town Board is interested in forming a working group that includes concerned residents.”

“We are also hopeful that the Suffolk County Planning Commission can play a role to help assist us with finding commonalities as we seek to update our regulations,” she added.

Southampton’s moratorium came after massive public pushback against a proposed 100 megawatt BESS, known as Canal Southampton Battery Storage, LLC, which was being reviewed by the town’s Planning Board when the moratorium went into effect. The Town Board agreed to include that project in the moratorium against the advice of the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

The state Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group’s recommendations were released after Southampton Town submitted its extension request to the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

Southold’s moratorium was put in place after public concern over a 60 megawatt BESS facility was proposed on Oregon Road in Cutchogue in the winter of 2022-2023. Riverhead Town, where several BESS facilities have recently been proposed, including on Edwards and Kromer avenues, briefly considered and held a public hearing on a three-month BESS moratorium in the fall of 2023, but decided to not go forward with it after hearing the state recommendations were imminent.

Both Riverhead and Southampton already had recently drafted siting requirements for BESS facilities in their town codes, but many residents said they don’t believe those codes are adequate. Southold has not yet developed code regarding siting of BESS facilities.

The Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group recommendations, for lithium-ion BESS facilities that produce more than 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity, include requiring “industry-funded independent peer review” of Underwriters Lab fire safety reports for specific battery systems, since local jurisdictions often don’t have in-house experts in evaluating those reports.

It also recommended cabinet enclosures to prevent explosions within the containers that already separate batteries in BESS facilities, requiring qualified representatives of the operator of the system be dispatched within 15 minutes and be able to arrive on scene within four hours to provide support to local emergency responders and the sites be monitored by CCTV and a 24/7 staffed Network Operations Center that can communicate critical failure notifications to the site operator.

The report also recommends safety signage on perimeter fences, mandatory installation of fire breaks, periodic inspections, emergency response plans and regular training for local fire departments, and establishing guidance for water supply, “including whether water is appropriate for different technologies,” and whether that water should be used for cooling, smoke control, preventing fire spread or other purposes.

The Working Group also recommends the state remove the current exemption from the Fire Code for BESS projects owned or operated by electrical utilities, and have further discussion about greater clearance distances for highly flammable oil-insulated transformers.

The Working Group is accepting comments on the proposed changes through March 5, through NYSERDA’s online portal.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who is standing behind the technology as a key to the state’s green energy transition, announced the release of the report Feb. 6.

“The battery energy storage industry is enabling communities across New York to transition to a clean energy future, and it is critical that we have the comprehensive safety standards in place,” Governor Hochul said. “Adopting the Working Group’s recommendations will ensure New York’s clean energy transition is done safely and responsibly.”

The full set of code recommendations was released just a week after activists criticized the Working Group’s initial report, released in late December, which included nearly 500 pages of air, soil and water sampling data that said it has found that there were “no reported injuries and no harmful levels of toxins detected” at the sites of the fires, which included one in East Hampton.

Activists told Newsday the sampling data didn’t include a groundwater study, the contractors performing the testing were initially unable to test for lithium and that four months passed between the fire and the collection of soil samples at a site.

The Working Group said it analyzed air and water samples at the three sites from a variety of sources — at a June 27 fire on school property in Warwick, NY, the air monitoring results were “relayed to the working group by local officials,” along with an independent third-party site inspection report, according to the Governor’s office.

At a fire July 27 in Chaumont, they relied on an air monitoring report from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control and soil and water monitoring by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

At the May 31 fire in East Hampton, they relied on on-site soil sampling results “relayed to the Working Group by a project developer,” according to the Governor’s office.

“Based on the information available to date, there is no evidence of significant off-site migration of contaminants associated with the fires,” according to the initial report.

While the initial report said the Working Group was “concluding negotiations with the impacted facilities’ battery manufacturers and utility companies to secure Root Cause Analysis reports” for the fires and that “subject matter experts will review and analyze the reports once they are made available,” the recommendations speak instead to the difficulty of incorporating Root Cause Analysis data from manufacturers into the Fire Code.

The Working Group recommends the state require the manufacturers of batteries to disclose their Root Cause Analysis of the fires “to relevant local and state authorities for analysis and evaluation with the intent of promoting continuous improvement of energy storage system fire safety.”

The report says the Fire Code might not be the right place to instate this requirement, since manufacturers of batteries are not subject to fire codes unless they also act as project developers.

Following the fires, the state Office of Fire Prevention & Control (OFPC) made a Lithium-Ion Battery Awareness training course available on the DHSES E-Learning Management System for New York first responders. According to the OFPC, more than 2,000 participants had taken the course by late December.

The Suffolk County Fire Academy also began rolled out a new, three-hour lithium ion battery fire classroom training program in the fall of 2023, which had trained nearly 900 Suffolk volunteer firefighters by mid-January, including a large contingent of North Fork firefighters at a class at the Southold Fire Department last September, said Academy Deputy Director Chief Scott W. Davonski, who worked to draft the curriculum.

The next East End session of the class will be held at the East Hampton High School at 2 Long Lane in East Hampton next Thursday, Feb. 15 from 7 to 10 p.m.

Chief Davonski said Suffolk’s class is three hours long, while the state’s class is only two, but suggested that firefighters who want to learn more about the subject gather as much information as they can by taking both classes.

“Knowledge is power,” he said, adding that Suffolk’s class is being updated as the technology changes, and local fire departments can schedule the training in their home district.

Suffolk County firefighters can register for the class, called “Lithium Ion Batteries — Are You Ready?” through the Fire Academy’s website. It is also being offered in Greenlawn and Dix Hills later this winter.


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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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