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N.Y. county legislators push for hold on li-ion battery storage

Schenectady County legislators cited concerns that local VFDs are ill-equipped to combat fires at existing Li-ion battery energy storage systems


By Chad Arnold
The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — A push to enact a yearlong moratorium on battery energy systems throughout Schenectady County will continue after lawmakers quickly tabled the proposal at a meeting earlier this month, without discussion.

County legislators Eric Hess and Josh Cuomo, who each represent District 4, brought the proposal forward in September, citing concerns that local volunteer fire departments are ill-equipped to combat fires at existing lithium-ion battery energy storage systems within the county. The legislation was introduced just months after Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed a task force to establish new protocols following a series of fires at similar facilities in the state earlier this year.

The proposal appeared poised to advance after it was placed on the agenda for the Legislature’s Dec. 4 committee meeting. Hess and Cuomo — the only Republicans on the 15-member Legislature — were even preparing to thank their colleagues for listening to their concerns.

But a resolution calling for the moratorium was quickly tabled without discussion outside a brief mention that Schenecady County Fire Coordinator Scott Pike provided a letter to lawmakers detailing the county’s current training and response protocols for battery energy storage fires.

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The letter was not made available in documents provided to the public in advance of the meeting, and both Hess and Cuomo said they only received a copy minutes before the meeting began.

Both lawmakers were baffled by what unfolded.

“It’s super frustrating,” Hess said. “I was prepared to speak about this at the meeting and it was immediately tabled after the letter was distributed from the fire coordinator.”

Battery energy storage systems — which store excess energy captured from solar arrays and wind energy systems that is dispersed for later use — have become a growing concern in recent months throughout western portions of Schenectady County, where a pair of transmission lines provide access to the electrical grid and an abundance of sprawling, undeveloped land is ripe for siting the systems.

Some residents have raised concerns about the ecological impact of clearing land to place large green-energy systems. But more recently, the conversations have shifted to whether local fire departments have the resources needed to combat fires at battery energy storage systems that burn far hotter and longer than normal structure fires, due to the lithium-ion used to make the batteries.

The moratorium would prevent any additional facilities from being sited in the county and is intended to provide time to update legislation and protocols and allow a state task force an opportunity to further review standards, Hess said.

Fires broke out at battery energy storage facilities in Jefferson, Orange and Suffolk counties this past summer, prompting Hochul to establish the Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group. The group is made up of various state agencies and has been tasked with examining current battery storage fire and safety standards and developing new standards and training for local fire departments.

The Schenectady County fire coordinator, in his letter, outlined training the county has provided local fire departments and resources the county provides as part of its Hazardous Materials Response Team, which includes a drone-mounted meter that monitors air quality.

“These facilities have garnered attention throughout New York state and the country,” Pike wrote. “With this in mind, we in the county have done our best to provide training and equipment to responders and our Hazardous Materials Response Team, so they can be as prepared as possible in case an incident should occur at one of the facilities.”

In his letter, Pike said the county provided a seminar on lithium-ion battery emergencies which was attended by around 60 members of local fire departments and detailed plans to provide additional training and efforts that will take place early next year to include battery energy storage systems in the county’s Emergency Management Plan.

“My recommendation as the Schenectady County Fire Coordinator would be to allow this task force to gather information and make recommendations which will in turn allow Schenectady County to make more informed decisions,” Pike wrote, referring to the recently appointed state task force.

Gary Hughes, a District 2 representative and the Legislature’s majority leader, said the proposed moratorium is not off the table and that lawmakers are simply waiting for recommendations to be handed down from the state before taking any further action.

“In my opinion, we need to see whatever is coming from that state before we can make a decision,” he said. “It’s there, it’s still alive, but it hasn’t been voted on.”

Supporting small towns

Hughes said, if local municipalities are concerned about battery energy storage systems, they are free to pass their own moratorium. The county, he said, doesn’t typically involve itself in issues of land use.

“Certainly local municipalities — planning and zoning is reserved for them,” Hughes said. “We’re not forcing anything. We’re just saying, as a county-wide issue, we’d like to wait and see what the state says because we do have some responsibility. We have a large responsibility over public safety and fire service in the county. Less so with land use. So, if a municipality wants to have a moratorium and tap the brakes on solar, they can certainly do so. We’re not stopping them.”

The town of Rotterdam recently approved a moratorium on battery energy storage systems, and the town of Princetown is considering similar legislation.

But, Cuomo said the county passing a moratorium would help to further support local municipalities concerned about battery systems, noting the county has more influence with the state compared to a small town.

“If they have the backing of the county, it makes them feel much more comfortable and they feel like they have more control over their own towns,” he said. “We know the state has threatened to overrule small towns and we don’t have the resources to fight the state.”

Hess added that he plans to keep pushing for a moratorium, and believes that it is the county that should take the reins on the issue and provide additional guidance to municipalities that have less resources.

“I just think the county should be the leader on the rules and the plan and filter it down to local municipalities. I think local municipalities would appreciate the guidance from the county, in other words,” he said.

The legislator said he still has concerns about battery energy storage systems and has written his own letter to Pike detailing his concerns, emphasizing that he doesn’t feel first responders have the necessary resources to combat fires at battery storage facilities. The letter also emphasizes the county should adopt a moratorium to provide first responders an opportunity to be better trained.

“As a county, we have failed our communities and first responders,” Hess wrote. " Schenectady County clearly does not yet have a county-wide methodology to identify best practices, address potential risks, and ensure that first responders, facilities and communities are safe.”

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