Community Matters: Local group threatens county’s green energy projects
Sonoma County is poised to join a statewide initiative to eliminate California’s dependence on fossil-fueled power plants spewing large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere which accelerates global climate change.
To reduce such planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the State of California has set a goal to achieve a carbon-neutral electrical grid in 2045 by commissioning multiple new solar and wind projects throughout the state. In 2021, such renewable energy facilities generated more than 37 percent of the state’s electrical power and California is now on track to produce 90% clean electricity by 2030.
But the successful conversion to a 100% clean energy electrical grid cannot occur without the concurrent construction of new battery energy storage systems (BESS). Such systems typically consist of hundreds of lithium-ion batteries that store electrical energy for use later. Because solar power can only be generated during daytime hours, for example, BESS systems are essential to capture and store excess solar energy during the day for discharge to electrical customers at night.
While lithium-ion batteries have long been used for consumer electronics like cellphones and laptop computers, large-scale energy storage systems are powering equipment like data centers and hospitals. Today, such facilities are safely and cost-effectively backing up electric power grids during outages or extreme weather events, adding resiliency and reliability that benefit electrical customers across the state.
As a result of ambitious renewable energy policies, California’s battery storage capacity has increased twentyfold in the last four years, from 250 megawatts (MW) in 2019 to 5000 MW this year. But to reach a zero-carbon electrical grid, California will require an estimated 50,000 MW of battery storage or about 10 times the current level.
Locally, two battery storage projects have been proposed nearby the North Bay’s largest high-voltage electrical substation at the southeastern edge of Petaluma near the intersection of Frates and Adobe roads. The first, proposed by Strata Clean Energy, would be located immediately adjacent to the PG&E substation on 15 acres of the former Petaluma Adobe Golf Course property. The second, Borealis Energy Storage, would be located on the 17-acre site of the former Green String farm across the street from the substation.
But both projects, currently under County of Sonoma environmental review, are strongly opposed by a newly formed group here in Petaluma called Citizens for Battery Transparency. Two of the group’s leaders recently penned a fearmongering opinion piece entitled “Slow Down on Battery Storage Plans” in this newspaper as well as the Press Democrat demanding that construction of the two facilities “be put on hold until siting and safety criteria are established by state and local officials.”
But such safety criteria are, in fact, already very well established. Section 1206 of the California Fire Code has a very detailed list of specific safety guidelines that must be met before any permit is authorized for the construction of a battery storage facility. More safety regulations are contained in the State’s Electrical and Building Standards codes, while the
the California Public Utilities Commission released its own set of safety inspection criteria for battery storage projects in 2017.
Compliance with these and numerous other local environmental and safety requirements is mandatory and local fire agencies, including the Petaluma Fire Department and the Rancho Adobe Fire District, are deeply engaged in the application review process to ensure that both projects comply thoroughly.
County Supervisor David Rabbitt confirmed this last week, noting that both project applications are being “thoroughly vetted for environmental compliance and safety considerations” and that once such reviews were finished and the applications were deemed complete, public hearings would be scheduled.
Anyone who has ever filed a building application with the county’s planning department knows that the process is always lengthy and quite thorough. Strata Clean Energy’s project application, for example, was submitted 15 months ago and is still not yet complete due to the need for numerous environmental studies.
Yet project opponents, fearing the potential for “catastrophic problems,” have raised the specter of “fires, explosions, and the release of toxic gases” if a battery storage facility were allowed to be built here. For example, the group cited a fire at PG&E’s Moss Landing battery storage site last September in Monterey County.