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Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard S. Hyman is an economist and financial analyst specializing in the energy sector. He headed utility equity research at a major brokerage house and…

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Equinor Fights NIMBY Feelings in New York Battery Storage Project

  • Equinor's proposed battery storage facility in Mahopac, New York, faces opposition due to safety concerns about lithium-ion battery fires.
  • The opposition to projects like Equinor's highlights the difficulties in expanding transmission and storage capacity.
  • Energy companies may have to take into account NIMBY-related feelings for future project planning.
Battery farm

The Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) movement has targeted nuclear power plants, high voltage transmission lines, windmills and solar farms, demanding that builders just put them somewhere else. Now East Point Energy, a subsidiary of Equinor, the Norwegian energy company, wants to install New York’s largest grid battery storage facility in middle-class Mahopac, in Putnam County, about forty miles north of New York City. This proposed site is right next to posher Somers in Westchester County, on property owned by— as described by the local paper — members of two politically prominent local families. (It’s bad enough bringing several government jurisdictions into the fray. Why add a political component to the deal?)

Opponents argue that lithium-ion batteries can develop thermal runways which lead to high temperatures that cause the battery to vent combustible gas or to ignite. The East Point Energy people say that such occurrences are extremely rare (have you heard that before?), which may be true but one such event happened not that far away across the Hudson River in Orange County on property owned by the local school district. And lithium-ion battery fires are becoming regular events in New York City, where delivery bike owners store and charge their vehicles in a willy-nilly fashion in old residential buildings inadequately wired for these electrical loads. Maybe not rare enough.

Related: Sweden Rejects New Power Cable to Germany Over Market Inefficiencies

We don’t want to discuss the virtues of the Mahopac location or of the storage technology, but rather that nothing seems to have changed since the days when utilities attempted to locate facilities wherever they wanted on the grounds that the designated spot was the most economical (for the utility) and therefore nothing else mattered. These facilities usually provoked opposition, and led to lawsuits that went on forever. But no matter, it’s better to opt for the cheapest site or route (even if that means lawsuits, delays and maybe never getting the job done) than to find a more acceptable (although more expensive) solution. These NIMBY types aren’t engineers, so don’t give in to them. Just complain about the delays.

Our point is that dealing with NIMBYism is just one more part of the planning process. It won’t go away. Changing siting laws will only change NIMBY tactics. Telling people that what they fear doesn’t happen often (things like nuclear power plant accidents) or that the alternatives are worse (more people die from mining coal than from nuclear accidents) does not cut the mustard. Neither does telling people that they should take risks for the benefit of electricity consumers somewhere else.

In the end, the electricity industry will have three choices:

     1. Know the local situation ahead of time and learn to accommodate —  Not easy and probably unlikely because the builder/operators are no longer locals.

     2. Seek legislation to ease siting rules— Probably the industry’s preferred solution but locals will find ways to delay the project anyway. It took an act of Congress to site the Mountain Valley pipeline. How many batteries will have Joe Manchin backing them?

     3.  Put less emphasis on transmission and more on locally sourced power— People might accept local storage for their power, But, this is not a grid friendly solution. (Centralization vs decentralization of the grid could be a big issue over the next decade)

We know, from the desperate pleas of renewable providers and transmission entities, that in this country we need more transmission and will not meet our electrification and decarbonization goals without more transmission capacity. And we’ve heard about endless delays in siting and construction. But in alloting blame and looking for solutions, we haven’t said much about the people who can’t seem to figure out how to do the project without encountering (or perhaps creating) problems. 

In truth, do you really want a project in your neighborhood that could (but probably won’t) catch fire, spew noxious fumes and burn for days? We suspect that you would not — whatever your political inclination or attitude toward climate change. We might see more Mahopacs in the future. And that will not be good news for the transmission business.

By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com

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