New York is reeling from its hot battery summer

The state’s ambitious clean energy buildout has hit an unexpected setback after three different grid batteries caught fire in the span of two months.
By Julian Spector

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A large rectangular white metal container is on fire. It is next to solar panels and behind a fence.
Firefighters from the Three Mile Bay Fire Co. battled a blaze at a Convergent Energy and Power site in Chaumont, New York for four days in late July 2023. (Three Mile Bay Fire Co.)

New York state is grappling with how to adjust its ambitious buildout of clean energy storage after fires broke out at three separate battery projects between late May and late July.

The immediate damage was quite limited, beyond the battery containers themselves. No injuries were reported from any of the fires, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which plays a leading role in the state’s grid storage efforts. Nor is the agency aware of any resulting toxic emissions.

But the string of fires has put Governor Kathy Hochul (D) in a tight spot: She is pushing to increase the state’s battery storage capacity from about 300 megawatts today to 6,000 megawatts in 2030, to complement an expansive buildout of renewable generation. Batteries play a valuable role in balancing the ups and downs of solar and wind production, but they can’t deliver clean power on demand if they’re catching fire.

First, on May 31, a battery that NextEra Energy Resources had installed at a substation in East Hampton caught fire. A spokesperson for NextEra, one of the top developers and owners of grid batteries, told the East Hampton Star that the water-based fire suppression system operated as designed” and no further emergency response was required.” That’s pretty much a best-case scenario for a grid battery fire.

Then, on June 26, fire alarms went off at two battery units owned and operated by Convergent Energy and Power in Warwick, Orange County; one of those later caught fire. On July 27, a different Convergent battery at a solar farm in Chaumont caught fire and burned for four days straight.

After the latest fire, Hochul took action to prevent repeats: She created an interagency working group on battery safety and directed NYSERDA to inspect other operational battery projects for safety lapses. Now the state needs to find out how three different fires occurred at projects owned and operated by reputable industry veterans. Then it needs to reassure rattled residents that this kind of thing won’t continue as the state ramps up its battery capacity to 20 times more than its current level.

New York state has very aggressive goals around the electricity grid that really require quite a bit of energy storage, so it’s very important that we do deploy these systems,” said William Acker, executive director of the energy storage industry group NY-BEST. Our industry is incredibly focused on making sure that these resources can be safely deployed.”

What’s the fallout for New York’s clean grid push?

Three fires in two months pose both optical and operational problems for New York’s clean grid push.

The bad optics are readily apparent, even with zero injuries and no evidence of contaminated air or water. Local press covered the four-day-long” fire at Chaumont, noting that the adjacent town of Lyme postponed its Community Days festivities due to the chaotic mess” at the solar-battery plant. New Yorkers in other parts of the state voiced concerns about similar projects cropping up in their communities. The Warwick project leased land from a school district, raising the specter of what might happen if another fire breaks out during the school year. State Senator Mark Walczyk (R) called on the governor to freeze new storage installations until the investigation wraps up.

Battery developers, neighbors and politicians alike have every reason to stamp out the fire problem before installing gigawatts of new battery capacity, hence Hochul’s intervention. Acker said the storage industry is very open to continuous improvement,” such as new safety codes and standards based on whatever root causes the investigations reveal.

For their part, state leaders are standing behind the long-term storage vision. Energy storage is a critically needed resource to achieve a decarbonized electric grid and is essential to deploy at scale to meet New York’s Climate Act requirements,” a NYSERDA spokesperson told Canary Media.

Longer-term, battery fires risk jeopardizing the operations of the electrical grid. Battery storage is poised to replace dirty, outdated peaker plants, storing clean power and injecting it into the grid during hours of peak demand. The technology can’t deliver on its duties if it’s bursting into flames and then remaining inoperational for months of investigations and refurbishment.

The Long Island Power Authority told the East Hampton Star that the temporary loss of NextEra’s battery won’t prevent the local grid from meeting the seasonal summer electricity demand this year. That’s good news, but Long Island got lucky to have lost the battery at a moment when it didn’t really need it. If batteries are going to assume a key role in meeting demand, grid operators won’t have this luxury.

We don’t know yet if the batteries themselves caused the fires

Convergent declined to comment on possible causes until the investigations wrap up, as did Powin and GE, the vendors of the affected battery systems. Until the final reports come out, it’s important not to assume the fires originated in the batteries themselves: In fact, recent high-profile grid battery fires elsewhere have been traced to malfunctions in the supporting equipment at battery storage plants.

That’s to say, there is a difference between batteries starting a fire and batteries catching fire from another source. Which of those turns out to be the case in New York will determine what remedies the state should pursue.

Investigators traced a 2019 Arizona battery explosion (still the most injurious grid battery fire thus far, hurting four emergency responders) back to a defect in one lithium-ion cell made by LG Chem, although other design choices at the installation exacerbated the outcome. GM’s $2 billion Chevy Bolt recall a couple of years ago was intended to prevent possible fires due to a battery defect as well.

The storage industry quickly improved its designs to prevent a repeat of the explosive gas buildup that made the Arizona fire so dangerous. In case a failure happens, the goal is to fail safely. Since then, several fires have been traced not to the batteries themselves but to banal supporting equipment at the power plants.

In the most ironic cases, systems intended to fight fires leaked water onto perfectly healthy batteries, causing short circuits that sparked a conflagration. That took out part of Moss Landing, the biggest grid battery in the world, last summer. A Tesla battery pack caught fire in Australia in July 2021, and it turned out a leaky cooling system triggered that one, too.

If New York’s investigations point to faulty auxiliary equipment — wiring, inverters, fire suppression, HVAC — that’s the kind of thing that state policy can address. Hochul’s task force could identify ways to inspect the quality of those other components in battery plants, and push developers to up their game on all the little stuff. This might add to the time and expense of doing business in the state, but it’ll be far less costly than continuing to put out literal and figurative fires.

The battery fire blame game has already begun

The outcome of the investigation will also determine who’s to blame for the incidents, and already we’re seeing the risks of having too many cooks in the kitchen for energy storage projects.

Convergent got in early on New York’s storage market and was acquired in 2019 by private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, which promised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new storage projects. The developer had not struggled with fires at its facilities before this summer.

Shortly after its first fire, Convergent seemed to implicate its supplier, Powin, an Oregon-based company that buys battery cells and integrates them into fully packaged power plant enclosures, with inverters, controls and safety equipment.

While Convergent is responsible for developing and operating these two sites, we rely on partners to manufacture and install the battery storage systems,” the company wrote in a June 29 statement. We are now working in a support role with Powin’s team as they assess the source of the problem and coordinate a response.”

Convergent reiterated the same talking point about its suppliers when its Chaumont system went up in smoke. GE’s battery storage division manufactured those systems.

When we install battery storage systems, we partner with reputable third-party manufacturers who provide the systems, including the batteries that are inside them,” Convergent said in a statement to local press. The manufacturers ensure that their products satisfy highest-level safety standards set by the independent agency UL, including fire containment and fire suppression capabilities.”

Convergent trusted its suppliers, and it had good reason to: Neither GE nor Powin had ever previously experienced any fires at storage plants they supplied. GE launched its product in 2018 backed by a hefty corporate balance sheet and a century of experience crafting power equipment. Powin is a much younger company than GE, but it has quickly grown into one of the most prolific suppliers of grid storage enclosures. The company vocally promoted better safety standards after the Arizona fire in 2019.

But, as anyone who has struggled to assemble Ikea furniture can attest, even a well-made product is only as good as its installation. Convergent’s statements neglected to mention who installed the battery systems in Chaumont and Warwick.

Powin’s business model is selling products, not providing what the industry calls EPC” services (engineering, procurement and construction). When the Warwick project came online in May, Convergent noted that it had designed, constructed, and operated” that plant.

The same held true for the Chaumont project. We were a product supplier,” said Troy Miller, sales leader for GE’s storage product. In this case, the customer, Convergent, held the responsibility for correctly installing and operating the project.

When asked, a spokesperson for Convergent confirmed the company relies on qualified contractors to carry out the engineering and construction of its projects.”

In short, different companies manufactured the cells, assembled them into enclosed grid storage products, oversaw construction and physically hooked them up to the grid in Warwick and Chaumont. This is not always the case — sometimes, the company integrating the battery enclosure installs it as well. LG recently moved from simply manufacturing cells to packaging them into finished grid battery products, precisely so it could stand behind the whole finished product, per a recent interview with Canary Media.

Any one of these links in the chain could prove to be the weak one, but all the named parties are in the news for it.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.