You don’t have to look farther than car commercials on television to know that electrification is going to be one of the hottest topics for discussion in the years ahead. We’re on the brink of a new horizon in the world of electricity not seen since the War of the Currents of the late 19th Century. And the road ahead is anything but smooth.

You just have to look at the backlash in recent weeks against Battery Energy Storage Systems proposed in Cutchogue and Riverhead to see that the public is still filled with questions about this developing technology, and we anticipate the debate over electrification of houses here will continue to be charged with anxiety and questions in the years ahead. 

As northeasterners, we’ve been trained to believe heat pump technology, which is rapidly gaining acceptance as the electric building heating solution of the future, is an auxiliary and unstable technology to which our parents were forced to adapt when they began to snowbird south for the winter and had to turn on the backup gas heating system during cold snaps. 

Our recent frigid Christmas is a solid reminder that climate change doesn’t just mean the weather is getting warmer. The weather is also getting weirder, and our houses need to be able to withstand this new weird normal. 

The public needs to see proof these heat pumps will not only withstand cold weather, but be efficient enough to justify their cost to operate at low temperatures. 

Renewable energy advocates have long worked to keep their efforts from devolving into a political debate, focusing on increasing efficiency, safety engineering and technological advances. 

But renewable energy has long been a bogeyman of the right. If you drive a Prius and you’ve found yourself at the mercy of more than one tailgating, middle-finger-waving pickup truck driver, you aren’t alone. “F- – – Your Prius” is actually a movement. Perhaps it’s for the best that Toyota’s once-pioneering hybrid is now on the wane. Its symbolism as the car of out-of-touch liberals is really a holdover from the 20th Century. The future holds much more exciting things, for people from every strata of society.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act, which went into effect in August of 2022, is filled with incentives to spur both industry and households to electrify their energy use. While the changes to the $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit — which limit the eligible cars to those whose final assembly is in the United States — have gotten the most attention (not much of it positive), other incentives may prove more of a catalyst for households to change.

Incentives like the non-refundable electric vehicle tax credit are only useful if you owe the IRS at least $7,500 the year you buy the car, but incentives to help electrify homes include up-front discounts on systems and appliances for people who earn less money, putting this technology within reach for households that don’t earn enough to be refunded thousands of dollars in taxes each year.

This summer, the first offshore wind farm to provide power to New York State will come online off the coast of Montauk. It’s a very small project, just 12 turbines, compared with other projects in the pipeline for upcoming years, but it is a significant one for the East End, where the wind energy will be distributed. 

A key component of decarbonizing the electric grid is to ensure the power generated from renewable sources can be stored, and these Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) are going to be part of our energy future. But local governments do have a say in the safety of these facilities and where they are located. Our planning and zoning boards, comprised of part-time politically appointed individuals who are for the most part not engineers, need to call on experts to draft the codes to safely site these systems in the future. 

Luckily, both Southold and Riverhead towns have both recently hired consultants to help them finish their Comprehensive Plans. These consultants should make establishing the framework for these types of facilities a top priority.

As with any new technology, many people have questions and have heard from their neighbors about the dangers of battery technology, as well as the true environmental impact of lithium mining. We do need better methods to recycle lithium batteries, reducing the need to depend on mining ecologically sensitive areas. That goal is beyond the scope of the East End.

Closer to home, the catch phrase of late 2022 here has been “thermal runaway,” the process by which an overheating lithium ion battery can cause a cascading series of overheating of nearby batteries. 

Thermal runaway was a very real problem in early BESS systems, and is still a major problem in aftermarket consumer lithium ion batteries like those used to power ebikes.

The good news is that the BESS industry and its regulators are well aware of these issues, and have been working for years to develop standards and requirements for more stable battery chemistry and safety systems designed to compartmentalize individual battery cells, with their own fire suppression systems, to prevent thermal runaway from happening. That type of safety protocol just doesn’t exist for consumer lithium ion battery products.

Way back in 1888, early electric companies began installing transmission lines in this country spurred on by George Westinghouse’s belief in the efficiency of transmitting high voltage alternating current over long distances. After several people were electrocuted by pole-mounted electric lines, a media uproar ensued, drawing attention to the the corners being cut by the electric companies, and giving credence to Thomas Edison’s faith in safer, direct current technology.

But this controversy did not lead to the end of electricity. Numerous safety and efficiency innovations came out of this debate, including Nikola Tesla’s alternating current induction motor, and by 1892 Edison Electric and its main alternating current rival, Thomson-Houston, had merged to form General Electric, which to this day produces electrical appliances built on alternating current technology. 

By the present day, we’ve become so accustomed to pole-mounted alternating electric current that a neighborhood with underground electric wires feels somehow naked. We don’t think twice about where the power comes from when we turn on a light switch. 

But as the War of the Currents shows, when transformative change reaches a tipping point, the world shifts quickly. We have a say in making this transition as safe and efficient as possible. These things are now within our hands, both in our communities and in our homes.

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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