A Google Maps screenshot of the AES site at 690 N. Studebaker Road that will soon house the largest lithium-ion battery storage plant in the world.
One of the largest lithium-ion battery storage facilities in the world will soon call Long Beach home after the council voted unanimously last night to deny a challenge to the development that will install 300 megawatts of emergency energy near the Los Cerritos Wetlands.
The project will result in three 65-foot-tall buildings being built between Studebaker Road and the San Gabriel River just south of the 22 Freeway as it exits onto 7th Street. The buildings will house battery units that will store excess energy created during daylight hours through solar and other sources and allow for the release of this stored energy during nighttime hours.
The project—worth $1 billion, according to the New York Times—is between AES Energy Storage and Southern California Edison. Battery projects like this one have been fast-tracked in the wake of the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak that began in late 2015, forcing the closure of the plant that was often used to create emergency boosts of energy to the Southern California grid by releasing bursts of natural gas to be converted into energy via combustion.
With that plant closed lawmakers warned that the region could face a higher-than-normal number of blackout or brownouts—temporary reductions in supply—to cope with the reduced capacity due to the loss of the Aliso plant. Earlier this year AES and the San Diego Gas and Electric company entered into a similar agreement to roll out what was then considered the largest battery storage facility in the world, capable of storing 30 megawatts of energy.
The Long Beach installation will be capable of storing upward of 300 megawatts of energy total, with each building capable of storing 100 megawatts each. Earlier this month Tesla announced it was halfway done building the largest battery storage site in South Australia. That site is capable of storing one-third of what the Long Beach site will store.
The Long Beach project is expected to be completed within the next few years as the buildings are installed one at a time, with the third building expected to be completed by 2023. By then, what is now the largest site of its kind in the world could be stripped of its title of king of the battery storage plants.
AES Director of Sustainability and Regulatory Compliance Stephen O’Kane said that the proposed facility would eliminate gas-fired energy production that is currently on-site, which would also reduce the levels of pollution and the number of dangerous chemicals like oil, ammonia and lead-acid batteries needed to create that energy. Characterizing it as “much less hazardous”, O’Kane said that the facility would help the state meet its renewable energy goals.
“This project and others like it are critical to expanding our alliance on clean, renewable energy and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” O’Kane said. “Southern California is blessed with an abundance of solar power but in order to harness that power, to use it when we most need it, in the evenings and night as opposed to when it’s generated during the daytime, we’ve got to store it.”
Development of the storage plant was challenged by Warren Blesofsky, president of Long Citizens for Fair Development, who has unsuccessfully challenged a growing number of developments throughout the city based on development standards and environmental concerns.
During the council meeting Tuesday night, Blesofsky drew attention to the plant’s proximity to homes, water sources and the wetlands as grounds for the council to dismiss the mitigated negative declaration that the city’s planning commission approved for the project earlier this year.
He asked why the city would want tens of thousands of gallons of flammable battery units on its property when just recently you couldn’t take certain lithium-ion batteries made by Samsung onto an airplane due to potential fire hazards. Samsung produced the battery units for AES’s San Diego site, but a request for clarification on which company would produce the batteries for the Long Beach site went unanswered at the time of publication.
“I think the biggest problem with this project is not battery storage itself, but it’s the location of this battery tower,” Blesofsky said in defense of his suit brought against the city. “This battery tower is the largest battery array that will be deployed anywhere in the world. The largest one. Los Angeles County has other areas, quote-unquote wasteland areas that are better suited for this battery tower.”
In addition to the lithium-ion battery cells having the inauspicious connection to the now-infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7 situation, where the company was forced to recall all of its phones due to reports of some exploding and/or catching on fire, with the blame being placed on the battery units, the byproducts of a leaking battery can produce hydrofluoric acid.
The substance, especially when released into the atmosphere, can be lethal. It has recently come under scrutiny because of its use at a refinery in Torrance, especially after an explosion in February 2015 threatened a tank at the facility that contained tens of thousands of pounds of the substance.
In a report filed after the near disaster, KPCC reported that the “kill zone” surrounding the plant, as identified by ExxonMobil in papers filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would potentially endanger over 250,000 people and would encompass an area over three miles from the refinery in their worst case scenario.
The Long Beach site would hold somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 gallons of flammable liquid inside the battery units. However, it’s unclear how much hydrofluoric acid would result from any kind of large-scale leak.
“Staff is not aware of any immediate risk or danger regarding the particular type of facility that’s posed here,” said Linda Tatum, Long Beach’s planning bureau manager. “As the applicant mentioned, this type of facility or facilities of this nature have been built in other locations around the state and around the world; however, the size of this is what makes this one extraordinary but the size does not equate to any additional risk.”
Janet West, a Fourth District resident, said she was at the Torrance City Council meeting when they discussed the explosion at the ExxonMobil plant in 2015 and heard them discuss what could have happened had the debris from the explosion compromised the tank of hydrofluoric acid.
“The most vivid thing from that meeting was a kill zone map,” West said. “And it came to east Long Beach from Torrance. And I heard no one, no one, dispute that there would’ve been a kill zone if that tank had been breached.”
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, seeking to downplay what she said were inaccuracies in public testimony regarding the safety of the storage facility, noted that City Attorney Charles Parkin and herself both live in the potential “kill zone” of the site, as well as leaders of the company that was proposing the project.
“Although it’s not relevant or appropriate to speak about specific addresses of people who run this company I will tell you that at the very highest levels of management they do live in the area,” Price said. “I think that that says a lot when people are willing to stand by a project in such a way and say they’re exposing themselves to the very same risks that people have complained of.”
While much of the public dialogue centered on residents speaking out against the proposed project due to its aesthetics and the potential for its impact on the environment, and conversely, people sympathetic to the industry alleging “green environmentalists” are trying to shut down everything related to power production, not everyone was against the plan.
Karen Reside, a resident of the city and vocal participant in city politics, said the storage site would not only clean up the city’s power consumption, but could also improve the ecology in the surrounding bodies of water.
“I’m also one of those green environmentalists but I also like to look at what the science says,” Reside said. “This plant is a great thing. It’s going to reduce a significant amount of pollution and clean up a big environmental mess at the power station. There are people who support this plant and think we can’t get it in fast enough.”