New Southold Battery Energy Storage Systems Committee Set To Meet Soon

SOUTHOLD, NY — With many members of the public expressing grave concerns about battery energy storage facilities proposed for Southold town, a moratorium has been put in place — and a new town committee, appointed to weigh the issues, is set to meet for the first time next week.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell proposed a moratorium on such facilities until more information had been studied.

“I had originally proposed a moratorium for a year in order to form a community-based community to evaluate the industry, state regulations, and long-term needs of the promotion of alternative and renewable energy,” Russell told Patch.

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The first organizational meeting of Southold Town’s newly appointed BESS committee, comprised of seven individuals with varying backgrounds and perspectives, will take place on Monday, July 17 at 2 p.m.

The moratorium was adopted on April 11 but the town board had to vote again on May 23 to override the Suffolk County Planning Commission’s restriction to six months, Russell explained. The Southold Town board voted a second time and overrode the planning commission’s decision with a super- majority vote. It was a 6-0 vote both times, and the 12-month moratorium is currently in place.

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In recent months, a fire broke out at a 5-megawatt lithium-ion battery energy storage system in East Hampton. Mike Mazur, a spokesperson for NextEra Energy Resources, which has partnered with National Grid on that project, responded to a request for comment on the fire from Patch.

“There was an isolated fire at our East Hampton facility in May,” Mazure said. “We are working diligently to repair the facility, and expect to do so over the coming months. We will have a more definitive timeline and damage assessment once a thorough review is complete. In the meantime, there are no safety or power concerns for local residents as a result of the facility being out of service.”

In addition, he said: “The safety of our employees and the communities that we serve is the foundation of our projects. It’s important to note that the water-based fire suppression systems operated as designed and quickly contained the fire to the site. No further emergency response was required.”

Mazur added that it was important to note that NextEra’s energy storage facilities are managed, monitored and cooled in a controlled manner to keep the equipment functioning safely, and have extensive fire protection systems, which respond immediately to an incident as demonstrated at the East Hampton Battery site.  In addition, Mazur said, the East Hampton Battery facility can provide 5 MW of dispatchable power for up to eight hours for roughly 5,000 households in southeastern Long Island.

Hampton Bays residents have also been reaching out to their neighbors to voice concerns about a proposed facility in their community; a meeting at Southampton Town Hall takes place Tuesday.

Reflecting on that fire, as well as a two large BESS system fires that have been smoldering in Warwick, New York, for more than a week, Russell recently told Patch: “I believe both validate my call for a moratorium for these facilities so we can consider every aspect, especially siting locations and design to maximize safety and protect the environment.”

At the first BESS committee meeting, Russell said: “I think it’s safe to assume that the fires will be the first topic of discussion. I do insist that the local fire departments have substantial input in the discussions moving forward.”

He added that he believes it would be “irresponsible to not thoroughly evaluate BESS facilities and develop sound code the mitigates all impacts. These are substantial facilities, even the smaller ones which could have substantial impacts. New York State is promoting them very heavily and we have to understand that each town will have site obligations to host them, either willingly or by mandate by the state.”

To that end, Russell said, there is a “need to develop a sound application and review process that will provide for that eventuality.”

Members of the public turned out in force in March in Southold to support the moratorium on applications for battery energy storage facilities — with not one person standing up in opposition.

Russell reminded that the moratorium was not focused on any one specific project but on the industry in general.

In past months, the public has expressed grave concerns about one project, pitched by Key Capture Energy, at a zoning board of appeals hearing, and then, a planning board public hearing, and a Cutchogue Civic Association meeting. The plan calls for the construction of a 60-megawatt lithium-ion battery storage facility, located at 10750 Oregon Rd. in Cutchogue.

Residents cried out about safety concerns, as well as the impact on community character and visual vistas, and questioned whether the project would even benefit residents locally.

Gwynn Schroeder was the first to step up to the podium at that hearing. “I think the town needs to take a pause,” she said, in support of the moratorium. “Energy is complicated and storage is complicated. Take the time to do your due diligence.” Having said that, she added that if the town is going to transition to clean energy, there will be a need to store energy.

“We need these facilities,” she said. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, has tools to help, she said, and also asked that the town’s proposed battery energy task force include first responders and environmentalists.

Dave Bergen, president of the Cutchogue Civic Association, also supported the moratorium; Russell thanked the civic group for hosting the “informative community meeting.”

Doris McGreevy of Mattituck said she’d done research on the BESS facilities. “It’s much worse than you think,” she said. McGreevy said a paid professional consultant would be needed to examine all the issues, which she listed. “This is a very serious project,” she said. “You need a framework for the code.”

Russell said he agreed once a task force was convened, a consultant might be needed, adding that he didn’t want to rely on any one specific energy storage company or NYSERDA and that an objective opinion was needed.

Anne Murray, representing the North Fork Environmental Council, said a few years ago, a BESS was approved in Greenport, something she found shocking. “Luckily, it was not built,” she said.

The town has no code in regard to BESS facilities, she said. Public safety is key, she added, reminding of a recent fatal crash in East Marion with an electric car that burned for hours.

“We recognize the need for BESS in the future,” Murray said. “But we need environmental and safety standards. A moratorium is a sensible and sustainable way to address our future power needs.”

Peter Speranza of Cutchogue said he didn’t understand how any such “huge”project could be approved without safety studies.

Russell said again that he advocates “robust discussion” and he did not plan to “rely on” any large energy storage company or NYSERDA.

Another neighbor asked who’d pay for an independent consultant.

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Russell said it would be a taxpayer expense, yes, but it was a “community policy issue.”

Southold Town Councilman Greg Doroski said Schroeder had made a “good point,” that the facilities will be needed but safety and siting are key issues. He added that just as the town hires independent zoning consultants or experts, this is a similar area where technical expertise is needed and a consultant might be useful.

“If it helps us draft good code, it’s money well spent,” Russell said.

Another Cutchogue resident brought up the project proposed for Oregon Road and said the area was one of the most “beautiful, rural” spots on the North Fork.

Russell said the task force would be determining where such facilities would go moving forward.

The supervisor added that as it stands, the town’s building inspector had determined that currently, battery storage facilities are not permitted uses and are not currently allowed anywhere in Southold Town.

Kevin O’Mara of Cutchogue, speaking on behalf of the Friends of Oregon Road, brought a petition with 1,100 signatures in favor of the moratorium and said he believed the measure would give the town board time to study the issues.

Phil Denara, senior management of development at Key Capture Energy, said he was not arguing for or against the application or the moratorium, but wanted to inform the public that Key Capture had completed a hazard and mitigation report, a draft emergency response plan, and a decommissioning plan.

“I fully understand that you might want to leverage a third party” as a consultant, he added.

Tim Hill, of Perillo Hill, representing the O’Maras and Friends of Oregon Road, said he believed the moratorium was a “smart idea” and posed no legal impediments or conflicts.

“Siting is the sweet spot of what governments do,” he said, adding that the task force could discuss what locations in town make sense and develop “common sense” standards.

Another Mattituck resident, who has lived in Paris but said the North Fork is special, added: “We all live here for a reason,” he said. “During the pandemic this area seems to have come to the attention of the broader world — and now, all kinds of things are coming our way. Hotels, BES, etc. We can’t forget reasons we live here, so we need to look at the risks versus rewards.”

He said he was completely in favor of the moratorium. “I’m aware that technology changes and what was the best idea this year might not be the best next year. We need the time to look at this and decide.”

He added: “There is something special about this place and we can’t lose that. We have to look at the risk versus reward. What are we getting and what are the possible devastating results of something going wrong?”

Leslie Weisman, chair of the Southold Town zoning board of appeals, read a letter from the ZBA in unanimous support. “We know voting for a moratorium is never an easy decision but in this case, we believe it’s the right thing todo,” she said.

There are many questions that need to be answered, she said. “There is currently no guidance for BESS facilities,” she said. Issues to be examined include whether they should be treated the same as other special exceptions, and should the setbacks and protective buffers be the same. “Should they be permitted at all?” she asked. “This moratorium will provide the time needed to answer that and other compelling questions and could not be timelier.”

Weisman added: “We need new code for these BESS facilities,” adding that the ZBA “implores you to bring the ZBA and the planning board the tools we need to make the best decisions, that balance the reasonable rights of property owners with the health, safety and welfare of the community. Take your time, do your homework. Analyze the risks and speak to the professionals.”

Southold Town Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said that even if the moratorium didn’t pass, the BESS facilities are currently not allowed under town code. She said the moratorium would be “symbolic. We still have to put code in place.”

Councilwoman Jill Doherty said, despite some who believe that she and Nappa did not support the moratorium, that wasn’t the case. What she’d meant during the first discussions, she said, was that she’d thought a moratorium wasn’t needed, necessarily. She said a moratorium would cost the taxpayers money and with BESS facilities not allowed, her goal was to just “get to work” and begin working on the new BESS task force.

Murray asked Doherty how a moratorium could cost the town money. And even if it did, she added, “It’s probably not very much money, compared to the losses if someone comes in and tries to build something. It’s good to take a pause — show the people that you take their safety seriously.”

“Money hungry” developers, Murray said, could very well be “dangling money in front of older farmers,” who have no one to carry on their farms.

Of the developers, Murray said, “It’s in their financial interest, not ours.”

Although some voiced concerns that because the town had already approved a BESS in Greenport, and that could lead the town open to an Article 78 and legal action due to a “precedent” set, Southold Town Attorney Paul DeChance said that approval for the first BESS had expired.

Resident Carol Brown spoke to the issue of a symbolic moratorium. “Symbolism is okay when it garners trust in government,” she said.

When first proposing the 12-month moratorium, Russell said BESS facilities are a key component for the viability and promotion of renewable energy sources; however, the technology of these systems is still in its infancy, he wrote.

“It is imperative that the town undertake a thorough examination of these systems to identify any possible threats to public health, safety and welfare as well as evaluate the potential for environmental degradation,” Russell said. “These issues are of great public concern and it is important that the potential for any risks is thoughtfully reviewed with in-depth analysis and that mitigation measures are identified to ensure our goals of the protection of our community and of our environment.”

The findings should help craft codes that will determine criteria for future siting, site design, safety requirements and all other elements that might be necessary for approval to ensure that the town meets those goals. A 12-month moratorium will provide the time necessary to undertake such an analysis, Russell said.

Based on guidance issued by NYSERDA, Russell said, the first step is to write and draft a plan.

Included in the authority’s recommended process is the creation of the battery energy storage task force, which will include representatives from the community, businesses, the renewable energy industry, battery storage industry, environmental organizations and municipal officials.
The task force aims to create an action plan that would be adopted as an addition to the town’s comprehensive plan, and to serve as a guide for the integration of battery energy storage systems into the town code.

A thorough review should include a review of current industry safety protocol standards and success rate in application to new systems, as well as evaluation of remote monitoring and the possible need for an onsite response team, Russell said.

At public hearings, firefighters and other EMS workers have expressed concerns about the volunteers’ ability to respond in the event of a catastrophe.

The review would address those concern raised over issues of public safety and whether safety can be guaranteed if the facility is damaged by fire, equipment failure, human error or natural disaster, Russell said.

“Questions such as limitations of specialized equipment and personal safety gear, training of fire department personnel, police department members and other first responders in the event of toxic release or chemical fires due to operational failure need to be addressed,” he said.

Also included would be a review of the town’s comprehensive plan and the consideration of supplemental integration of battery energy storage facility siting and safety guidance.

“The town’s land mass sits over a sole source aquifer. What is the half-life of lithium-ion used in the batteries if a spill occurs?” he asked. “What threats to water qualify do BESS facilities pose — and is there a path to minimize them?”

A review of Southold’s emergency management plan would also ensue, as would a written emergency plan.

Siting considerations, including zoning, minimum lot areas, minimum front, side and rear yard setbacks, buffer requirements, maximum structure height and square footage, design standards, signage, lighting, clearing and vegetation, distance to occupied dwellings, work sites and other locations where people congregate such as parks, would also be addressed.

The town would aim to create standards for emergency access as well as proximity to areas of high ecological value.

“In addition, consideration must be given to the manner in which such permission should be considered by special permits for specific durations versus variance relief, which would be permanent and run with the land,” Russell said.

The town would also seek to establish a fire marshal inspection policy, minimal safety requirements, maintenance and operational reporting requirements — and create a decommission plan and appropriate requirements such as performance bond or other suitable guarantees, he said.

The draft new code section would then be to be submitted to the New York State Department of State, the supervisor said.

“While BESS facilities will have an important role in the future for the viability of renewable energy on a large scale, like any new technology, human and environmental impacts much be evaluated prior to land use inclusion,” Russell said. “Such code for inclusion requires certain steps be taken by the New York State Energy Research Development Authority. A 12-month moratorium will provide the time necessary to comply with that directive.”

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