Powin battery energy units at a 20 MW/80 MWh facility in Santa Ana, California built by Hecate Grid. Photo: Powin website

Riverhead Town will consider a moratorium on battery energy storage system facilities following fires at BESS facilities in New York State this summer.

Council Member Tim Hubbard made the announcement at today’s Town Board meeting. He said he is preparing to discuss a proposed moratorium at the next Town Board work session, which is scheduled for Sept. 14.

The fires, which prompted the establishment by the governor of a state inter-agency working group on the safety of BESS facilities, and a letter to the Town Board last week from the Riverhead Fire District Commissioners asking the town to enact a moratorium on BESS facilities, convinced Hubbard that a moratorium is needed, he said today.

“On behalf of the 170 volunteer members of the Riverhead Fire Department, we write to you today to implore you to follow the townships around us and impose a moratorium on Battery EnergyStorage Systems(BESS) in the Town of Riverhead,” the Riverhead Fire District commissioners wrote in an Aug. 28 letter to the Town Board.

Citing the fires, the commissioners said the town’s volunteer firefighters “face potentially extreme conditions in the case of a fire at once of these facilities.”

The state working group will begin immediate inspections of energy storage sites across the state, Gov. Kathy Hochul said in July, when she announced the group’s formation. It will “collaborate with first responders and local leaders to identify best practices, address potential risks to public safety, and ensure energy storage sites across New York are safe and effective.” The group will also “independently assess and identify common causes, air monitoring results or other community impacts, and other factors involved with energy storage fires,” the governor said.

“We look forward to the results of this task force,” the Riverhead Fire District Commissioners said in the letter.

“Additional time is needed to study the complexity of this issue and its impact on our community, as well as to ensure that the Riverhead Fire Department and neighboring departments have sufficient time and resources to train all members. Finally, more time is needed to determine whether we have the necessary resources to fight these fires and safeguard our members against the hazardous conditions they may present,” the fire commissioners wrote.

The Town Board in April unanimously approved a battery energy storage code to allow both residential and utility-scale battery energy storage facilities in Riverhead, rebuffing

The adoption came after two public hearings and despite residents’ urging the board to defer acting on the code until the impacts of BESS facilities were studied by the comprehensive plan consultants.

The new code established battery energy storage systems as an allowed use in Riverhead Town, with “tier-1” small-scale systems that have an energy capacity of up to 600 kWh — systems designed to serve individual homes and businesses — allowed in all zoning districts and larger “tier-2” systems that have an energy capacity of greater than 600 kWh — typically, utility-scale systems — allowed by Town Board special permit in several zoning districts in Riverhead: Industrial A, Industrial C, Planned Industrial Park, Agricultural Protection Zone and Residence A-80 if certain other conditions are met.

Hochul announced the formation of the working group on July 28, the day after a fire at a BESS facility in the Town of Lyme, in upstate Jefferson County. Hochul cited that fire and others at battery energy storage facilities in the Town of Warwick, in upstate Orange County on June 26 and in the Town of East Hampton in Suffolk on May 31. All of the facilities where fires erupted were built since 2018; the Warwick facility went online just a month prior to the fire.

Since this summer’s fires and the announcement of the working group, residents have continued to press for a moratorium on BESS facilities. Jamesport resident Barbara Blass did so again today, citing moratoria on BESS facilities adopted by the towns of Southold and Southampton. She urged the board to adopt a moratorium that would continue until the state working group finishes its work and releases its findings.

Hubbard said he’s been working on a moratorium with Planner Matt Charters, who played a key role in researching and drafting Riverhead’s BESS code. The councilman said he agrees the moratorium should last for as long as it takes the state working group to present its findings and make recommendations. Hubbard said after the meeting he believes there is sufficient support among Town Board members to adopt a moratorium.

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