Julie Tighe: Battery storage is essential; recent fires show that safety is, too

The following op-ed appeared in Newsday on March 4, 2024.

Battery storage facilities store energy from renewable sources and release it to the grid when power is needed most. The facilities have a small footprint and are typically found alongside existing solar, wind, or other industrial energy distribution sites. Battery storage systems increase supply reliability, stabilize the cost of energy, and are essential to supplying our homes and communities with emission-free power. This is particularly important for environmental justice communities that have borne a disproportionate burden of polluting fossil fuels.

However, as with all new technology, New Yorkers need assurance that battery storage facilities will be developed and operated safely. In the last year, three fires at battery storage sites in East Hampton and upstate Chaumont and Warwick led to understandable concerns from local communities.

To evaluate these incidents, Hochul launched the Inter-Agency Fire Safety Group — led by experts from the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, the Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The group reported in December that air monitoring and soil and water sampling showed no significant off-site migration of contaminants from the battery system fires, contrary to misinformation that circulated after the fires. This finding is critical in understanding the safety and environmental impact of storage and shows the risks from these systems differ greatly from illegal e-bike batteries.

Still, local communities have valid questions about potential fire impacts, including risks to Long Island’s sole source aquifer. The state working group must continue its analysis and provide detailed, fact-based guidance on how to safely develop and operate battery storage facilities. Last month, it released initial recommendations for enhanced safety standards for battery storage systems. The guidance includes proposed requirements for project permitting, emergency response preparedness, and local fire department training. These requirements must be as strong as possible to ensure safety.

Battery storage technology will improve our air quality by replacing “peaker” fossil fuel plants, which only operate when there is high demand for electricity and which are often the dirtiest emitters, contributing significantly to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions too often located in disadvantaged communities. We urgently need to phase them out.

There is work to be done to understand and mitigate battery storage fire incidents. But we are encouraged by these initial steps. Continued collaboration between state agencies, battery manufacturers, utility companies, and local communities — alongside the establishment of robust safety and siting standards — is essential to protect the well-being of our communities and advance this crucial renewable energy technology. As we forge ahead, continued adherence to this model will ensure a safe, effective energy transition that benefits all New Yorkers.

This guest essay reflects the views of Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

03.05.24 // AUTHOR: Devin Callahan //