Angry residents objected to allowing large battery energy storage systems in Riverhead Town during a public hearing last week, arguing that the safety of the systems and potential locations of the new use should be more carefully studied in the town’s comprehensive planning process.
Residents objecting to adopting the code without further study cited incidents, including battery fires and explosions, at BESS facilities in other states and other countries. People who live in Glenwood Village, a manufactured home community for seniors immediately adjacent to a proposed BESS facility site on Mill Road, north of West Main Street, turned out to demand more scrutiny by the town.
Representatives of the company proposing the facility on Mill Road, as well as a representative of another company that has not filed any applications with the town, told the Town Board the energy storage technology is safe, citing studies and new safety rules that have been put in place.
The Town Board last week forged ahead with a second public hearing on the proposed BESS code — the first hearing was in August — despite residents’ demands not to consider new uses while the comprehensive plan update is ongoing. The Town Hall meeting room last week was packed with residents who turned out to demand a moratorium while the update is being completed. More than 100 people attended a rally for a moratorium outside Town Hall before the meeting started.
The battery energy storage code proposal was written in response to development plans for such facilities on particular properties in the town.
The new code would allow utility-scale battery energy storage systems in five zoning districts in the town. It was first unveiled in a public forum in April — after at least two developers had already been in discussions with the planning department about plans to build BESS facilities in the town. One developer had already filed a site plan application in January, seeking approval to build such a facility on Edwards Avenue in Calverton. The second developer, which seeks to build on the Mill Road site, had a pre-submission conference with town officials in October 2021, according to its site plan application.
Edwards Calverton Battery Storage, a joint venture of NYC-based Rhynland Energy and the London-based global commodities trading firm Trafigura, seeks to build a 60 MW BESS facility at 104 Edwards Avenue, on a property in the Industrial A zoning district. Riverhead Energy, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Hexagon Energy, seeks to build a 100 MW BESS facility on a Mill Road site in the Residential B-40 zoning district. The site, though zoned residential, has a pre-existing commercial use.
Glenwood residents worried about the safety of the Riverhead Energy plans for Mill Road turned out to oppose the proposed code. They cited media reports of fires at BESS facilities in other states, and questioned the wisdom of siting such a facility on property adjacent to a densely populated senior citizen manufactured home community.
Town Board members assured residents that the proposed code would not allow a BESS facility at that site, because the zoning there — Residence B-40 — is not one of the five districts where the facilities would be permitted by the code.
But Jamesport resident and former council member Barbara Blass pointed out that, while the proposed battery energy storage code would not allow a utility-scale system on the RB-40 zoned property on Mill Road, the developer could still seek a special exception use for the site since the adopted code would establish battery energy storage systems as a legal use within the town. Blass noted that Murphree, in denial letters he issued to both Riverhead Energy and Edwards Calverton Battery Storage in July, advised the applicants to seek that relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Adam Stanek of Hexagon Energy said that relief would be very difficult to obtain from the ZBA. He asked the board to revise the proposed code in ways that would allow the Hexagon facility to be built on the Mill Road site. Stanek asked that the code be changed to allow utility-scale BESS facilities to be built on any residentially zoned parcel that is within 5,000 feet from an existing LIPA substation or commercial solar energy production facility. The current proposal would allow utility-scale BESS facilities on parcels zoned Residential B-80 if the proposed site is within 1,000 feet from an existing LIPA substation or commercial solar energy production facility.
Stanek presented the Town Board with a typed two-page letter signed “Residents of Glenwood” supporting the Riverhead Energy proposal. It was accompanied by sheets of paper containing 102 signatures of Glenwood Village residents. See the document here.
Barbara Branigan of Glenwood Village told the board those signatures represent a small minority of residents in a community that is home to over 600 people.
Riverhead resident Cindy Clifford, cofounder of a downtown civic association formed this year, slammed town officials for moving forward with the proposals before the proposed uses are studied and the comp plan is completed.
“These projects require exceptions to our zoning before they can get approved. What does that tell you? It underscores the urgency of completing the plan so that we all know and agree if and where these projects and how these projects will fit in,” Clifford said.
“Our planning department and Zoning Board of Appeals has too often arbitrarily altered zoning codes to suit the needs of developers,” Clifford said.
“Also too often our Town Board continues to appear to disregard the interests and requests of residents, while super-serving the advancement of controversial project proposals like these for new, unproven and sometimes inappropriate land uses,” she said. “What are the risks and the potential damage to our town, do they exceed any minimal benefit? And what is the direct benefit to residents?… But again, without experts working on this, within the context of a completed master plan, we’re throwing darts in the dark,” Clifford said, asking the board to delay adoption of the codes “until we have the big picture and know that the decisions are being made in Riverhead’s best interests.”
In introducing the code to the board and the public at last week’s hearing, Charters, the town planner who drafted the proposal, said the code is “purposely limited because we want to not see a proliferation of these uses throughout the town.”
Charters said a large part of the code addresses fire safety, and requires compliance with the state fire code, which specifically addresses utility-scale battery energy storage systems. The proposed code requires plans to be reviewed by the fire marshal, Charters said. It also requires an emergency operations plan, a commissioning plan, a fire safety plan and an operations plan, and requires all equipment specifications to be provided.
“It’s a very involved process,” Charters said.
Riverhead’s proposed code is based on a model code published by the N.Y. State Energy Research and Development Authority as well as codes already adopted by other towns in the area, Charters said.
“So this is something that’s evolving throughout the region,” he said.
Battery energy storage technology itself is evolving worldwide. Technology has developed in part in response to numerous incidents of fires at battery energy storage facilities in the U.S. and internationally over the past two decades since utility-scale systems were first commercially deployed. Some fires have caused a condition known as “thermal runaway,” in which an overheated battery cell catches fire and causes other cells in the same series to overheat and catch fire. The burning cells emit combustible gases and can cause explosions.
There are different types of lithium-ion batteries used in utility-scale systems, distinguished by different battery chemistries. Hexagon’s Stanek said his firm chose lithium iron phosphate batteries because their research indicated these types of batteries are safer than other types. Hexagon chose batteries manufactured by Powin Energy, an Oregon company founded in 1989 because of Powin’s technology and track record of incident-free operation.
Hexagon does not yet have an operating battery energy storage system facility, according to its website, which lists five 100 MW facilities, including the one proposed in Riverhead, as “under development.”
The company currently operates five small-scale solar energy production facilities, each 5 MW or less in size, according to its website. The website also lists 31 solar energy projects and one wind energy project as “under development.”
Rhynland Energy, which proposes to build a 60 MW BESS facility on Edwards Avenue says on its website it is currently developing four BESS projects, all on Long Island. The company states on the website it is also developing EV charging infrastructure across the Northeast.
Paul Rogers, a principal in Energy Safety Response Group, consultant to Hexagon Energy, has been working on battery energy storage safety for a decade, initially with the New York City Fire Department. He spoke about the rigors of the state fire code relating to BESS, which he said he worked on with the state.
“The batteries that we’re using here, and the cells that are going to be used, have to go through testing and listing.That means they have to be tested by a national recognized testing laboratory, third-party witnessing,” Rogers said.
He said the well-publicized fire incident near Pheonix, Arizona in 2019, occurred at a facility built prior to the current safety standards, which Rogers said afford greater protection by requiring compartmentalization of battery cells in separate cabinets, rather than placing them in a dedicated building. See the report prepared for the Arizona Public Service Commission.
The public hearings were concluded on Dec. 20, but the records were left open for written comment until 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30. Comments should be delivered or mailed to the Riverhead Town Clerk, 200 Howell Avenue, Riverhead NY 11901 or emailed to the town clerk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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