Utility and Misc

Planners say thumbs down to battery storage project

David Ross | on July 16, 2020

Artist’s rendering of the Greens Storage expansion.

VC Community Planning Group (VCCPG) Monday voted to oppose a large lithium-ion battery storage project dubbed Valley Center Storage; to endorse Green Storage, an expansion of an existing facility on Lizard Rocks Road; and to endorse evacuating a county easement that had attracted the attention and opposition of the Valley Center Trails Assn. 

The two storage projects are unrelated. One would store enough electricity to power much of the region for several hours, and the other is an expansion of a storage facility.

The meeting was a Zoom meeting, plagued with technological burps and the occasional disappearance of a speaker for a few moments.  

Lilac Hills Ranch update

Planner Steve Hutchinson gave the post mortem on the June 24, 4-1 vote by the Board of Supervisors to reject Lilac Hills Ranch. Given LHR’s track record of bouncing back after defeat, it’s unwise to completely write it off, but Hutchinson phrased it, “The project is dead as far as we know now, except if they want to start again from square one.  After more than ten years back and forth it has come to an end. The density remains at 110 homes.”

Although the Planning Commission supported LHR, it crashed on the rocks of “fire safety and emergency evacuations considerations upset the project,” said Hutchinson. 

Fifth District Supervisor Jim Desmond lost the vote. He did not support the project as proposed, but opposed rejecting LHR without a chance for the developer to make changes to the fire safety evacuation plan.

Valley Center Storage

Planners were alarmed by potential safety issues, specifically fire, related to the battery storage facility, previously the Terra Gen Battery Storage before being renamed the less descriptive Valley Center Storage.

Mark Turner, representing the developer, appeared for the third time before the group. He was buffeted by questions and accusations about the technology’s safety record, and tendency to catch fire and pose a hazard for firefighters.

 The project was submitted to the County in April and its EIR went for public comment on June 25— a 45-day period. 

The $40 million lithium-ion based battery energy storage facility on nearly nine acres could deliver up to 140 megawatts (MW) for about four hours. It would interconnect to the adjacent San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) 69kV Valley Center Substation.

The array would include four battery enclosures (each 31.6 feet long by 5.7 feet wide by 8.6 feet high) housing the integrated Battery Energy Storage System (BESS.) They would be charged from the grid and discharge back into the grid.

Turner took the project to the Design Review Board which unanimously supported it.  

He also worked with VC Fire Marshal Jim Davidson: “They’ve reviewed and approved the documents relevant to their purpose keeping the community safe.” Turner said he reached out to anyone including PG critic Dr. Matt Matthews—the planner assigned the project.

Besides the $40 million in construction, and taxes from that, “There’s about $253,000 a year in property taxes for the region,” said Turner. “This region is particularly in need of that type of resource because of the retirement of existing generation facilities. He added, “California cannot reach its goal of a zero carbon future in 2045 without battery storage to store renewable energy and deliver it when the renewable energy isn’t available.”  

Speaking against was VC resident Cathy Baur, who said, “Placing the storage facility in Valley Center would create unacceptable risks for our community. One associated with these battery storage facilities is what is called thermal runaway. The systems are susceptible to rapid uncontrolled overheating. It’s a cycle in which excessive heat keeps creating more heat and at high temperature gas builds up —creating the potential for explosion and the release of toxic gases.”

This is not theory, said Baur. “They have unfortunately been a reality at numerous facilities. Just last year there was an explosion in Arizona that injured four firefighters and resulted in Arizona Public Service shutting down two other facilities.”

She added, “The problem is not limited to Arizona—Hawaii’s had at least two fires and lithium ion batteries caused more than 20 storage complex fires in South Korea in the last three years alone.”

She described the fires as “very intense and difficult to control. They can take days or even weeks to extinguish properly and can ignite or reignite days or weeks after they are thought extinguished.”

They can be very dangerous for firefighters. “In addition to the immediate fire and electricity risk they may have to deal with toxic fumes, exposure to hazardous materials and building decontamination issues,” she said. She posed this scenario: “Imagine what might happen in our community if an explosion occurred during a Santa Ana. Imagine the devastation.”

Describing energy storage as in its early stages, she asked, “Is that what we want for Valley Center; to be a Guinea pig for one of these unmanned battery storage facilities?”

Dr. Matthews added, “A project of this scope goes way beyond what VC could possibly benefit from—absorbing the risk countywide and placing it in our local community here.”

At Dr. Matthews’s invitation former VC resident John Corley, who owns property next to the SDG&E switching station spoke about his own, much smaller proposed battery storage facility. Born and raised in VC, he lives in Yuma, Arizona now although his parents are buried in VC Cemetery.

Corley had contacted members over the weekend. “I know I’m coming in the 11th hour but my project basically was on the fast track until Terra Gen came was put ahead of the line. Their project is so massive in scale it’s more appropriate for the city of Escondido.”

His proposed storage facility would be 10 MW, as opposed to 140 MW. “It will consist of ten to 20 enclosed battery containers similar to 40 foot shipping containers that is more suitable for Valley Center’s needs.”

He called his project “more aesthetically pleasing,” a seamless transition to the Vesper SDG&E substation. “Versus having it on the other side of Vesper Road where you could see it pretty much from Valley Center Road.” 

VC Storage would lease the land and sell back to SDG&E. “I want to emphasize that we would own this storage unit.”  At most he would be leasing it for 25 years to SDG&E. Then the land would be returned to its original condition. “That is a big deal because I don’t know what would happen if they walked away if there is a new technology where you don’t need the batteries anymore. We have a stake in the game being a landowner.”

Corley asked planners to reject the project and start over. “There is no rush whatsoever to accept this massive project just because they were first in line. There’s plenty of time to do due diligence. I believe my site is the best site for the community.”

He concluded, “A company coming from out of state is trying to swoop in and basically bamboozle you guys.” He added, “We had a deal in the works and unfortunately we had to take a back seat because they were first in line.”

Dr. Matthews supported Corley’s proposal. He disagreed that VC Storage would help provide a more stable grid. “SDG&E is shutting down our power because power lines are unstable and they are crossing wires in the wind and we’re getting fires as a result. So they are going to shut down this grid as well. This will provide no support to our power grid during a Santa Ana.”

Planner William Del Pilar, who attacked the proposal in June said he was,  “stuck in a hard place,” because if Terra Gen owned the land and followed right procedures it had a right to build. “What I don’t understand is why this is up for a vote when we have yet to receive the Valley Center Fire Department’s take?”

He talked to fire department staffers who had reacted to Turner’s statement last month that such fires could be doused with water. “I got a sarcastic chuckle and ‘Yeah, you can put it out with water, but how much water and how many days?’ ”

Del Pilar added, “We need to wait for the fire department’s assessment. If it is good I would grudgingly go along with it. I don’t want this project in my backyard for the same reasons Miss Baur said.  It could create a massive fire and release toxic gases. It’s not that it’s a bad project; but we’re fire country. If there is a fire it could cause death and create an environmental catastrophe.”

Hutchinson had questions about the technology. “I understand all the points made in favor of lithium ion at storage facility and I think storage is a reasonable thing.” Hutchinson, a member of the VC fire board, said he prefers to hear Fire Marshal Jim Davidson’s assessment. “It’s a technology that’s been with us for probably twenty years . . . but in those decades there have been a severe fire issues.” He also had problems with its scale. “If  we’re going to support the region, we ought to do it with safer technology.”

Turner rebutted; “Lithium ion technology has been around for a long time and evolved to state of the art in storage technology and the ability to charge electricity efficiently and discharge it back to the grid.” He added “it is a resource that helps us store renewable energy.”

He said his company is “local,” based in Del Mar. “I know we’re not right here in Valley Center, yet we want to be part of your community.”

Turner called Baur’s descriptions “overexaggerated.” He said the facility would have “three levels of defense,” and added, “The purpose of these three levels are to ensure that if something happens like a thermal runaway event it gets limited to the battery module. It is designed with sensors and controls and monitors at every module.” This would enable first responders to respond immediately “in the extremely unlikely event” of a fire.

That is the first level of defense, Turner said. The second is the containers themselves, “designed to control any potential event within the container. Each container has its own integrated fire safety system, smoke detectors and  gas detectors suppression systems.”

Fire risks of a 140 MW facility are similar to a 10 MW, “because the containers are separated by the appropriate distance,” so the whole facility cannot catch fire. “There’s no meaningful risk difference between a small and a large project,” he said. He said his project “can barely be seen from any public right of way.”

He said the fire in Surprise, Arizona in 2019, which injured four technicians with chemical burns injured first responders because they used the wrong protocols. “They did not properly implement the protocols.” He said that would not happen in Valley Center. 

He disputed that the facility would pose a greater wildfire risk. “It poses a very low risk because of the design and practices of this project,”  and reduces risk when SDG&E turns off power “By putting battery storage facilities near the load centers—so that when the transmission lines further east are pulled down by a Santa Ana wind—you’ve got regional storage that can keep power online in this region.”

His company has studied this site since 2016. “I’m sorry we are ahead of you John, but we are because we had a queue position since 2016.” He added “Quite frankly we have been shortlisted by just about every utility that serves customers like yourselves. They want our project,” due to the loss of the Carlsbad power plant and San Onofre nuclear plant. “They are retired but they need to be replaced with reliable alternative resources.”

He said his company wants to be part of the community. In past they have funded high school programs, museums and downtown solar lighting systems and fire department infrastructure. 

Del Pilar supported Baur’s concerns. “In the Surprise, Arizona fire there were eight injured firemen.” He moved to postpone the vote. “Mr. Turner, I don’t want your project but I’m not against it if you follow the rules and our local fire Department says ‘Yes we can handle this,’ because they are likely to be the first responders.”

He moved to postpone the vote to obtain more information from the fire marshal. That motion failed a and motion was made to approve the project. This motion failed 3-11-1.

Chairman Dee Chavez Harmes reported on signage submitted for the new Arco service station. She met with Arco’s architect and told him VC’s design guidelines do not allow internally lit signage. “I sent him a copy of the DRB regulations regarding signage. He’s very well made aware of that signage must be externally lit.” 

Harmes sent the DRB guidelines to the Rite Aid and Chevron, which both violate the guidelines. “Since ARCO is in design, they won’t have to correct a problem. I’m trying to get these developers to get it right the first time.”

Greens Storage 

Neil Kadakia, owner of Green Storage, spoke about the expansion of the existing storage. “We’re going to bring in a completely new product for Valley Center: climate controlled storage.” It will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It will have 25,000 square feet of RV boat and trailer storage. The expansion will have a new entrance. “Everything will be fully enclosed and completely powered by solar, so we don’t have any requirements of the grid,” he said.

Other amenities: an RV waste dump station and propane sales. Kadakia hopes to tap the market of 2,500 RVs and trailers within 10 miles.  The two-story storage will have an elevator, rather than a standard lift. It will have 290 climate controlled units, for a total of 380 overall. 

“Many have asked for climate control,” said Kadakia.  “The closest is in Escondido and lots of people don’t want to drive down the grade.”

The group voted 15-0 to approve of the project. 

Easement Vacation

After spending three months on a largely vaporous question of whether there was a trails easement of less than one mile in length on the plans for the Orchard Run project, and whether the group should support the County’s proposed easement vacation, the group finally voted to support vacating it, 12-3.

A county document indicated there was never a public trails easement proposed for the property, which the VC Trails Assn. had claimed when it asked the group to fight to keep the finger of trail public.

The July 13 letter from Emmet Aquino, project manager of the County’s Parks & Creation Department, stated: 

“The Specific Plan approved by Board of Supervisors (Board) on June 1998 clearly shows and states “Private Trail Network” with no reference to public trails.

• The Tentative Map TM -5087 approved by Board on June 1998 with no condition requiring public trails.

• The Specific Plan Amendment approved by Board on June 2005 to allow for max building height and two stories. No changes to the previous requirement of private trails. No new public trails required.

• The Site Plan Mod approved by Planning & Development Services Director on June 2019 shows trails as private.

• The Orchard Run project will dedicate public pathways along Betsworth Road and Lilac Road on the northern boundary, and Mira de Valle Road along the southern boundary as originally required. These pathways are identified in the Community Trails Master Plan.

• The existing trail easements and IOD to be vacated do not overlap with the Community Trail Master Plan.

The County never asked for public trails on the Orchard Run development.  “There might be confusion with Park Circle. Along Mirar de Valle lots of pathways will be provided.”

Kerry Garza of Touchstone Properties, developer of Orchard Run and Park Circle, added, “It was the County’s decision to vacate these public easements.” The trail connects to nothing but itself, he said.

When the former owner of Orchard Run, John Belanich, offered the easement, “He was trying to offload the burden of it and the County rejected it,” said Garza.

Hutchinson was skeptical of giving up on even a small trail. “I’m not convinced it’s in the best interest of Valley Center to vacate an easement as opposed to pursuing it and convince Parks and Recreation—despite their evaluation that it’s not desirable,” he said.

Kevin Smith said if they opposed vacating the easement it might signal VC is interested in preserving trails.  

Del Pilar added, “We’re always asking the County to listen to us. I’m saying listen to the County organizations responsible for these types of issues.”

Mark Wollman of the VC Trails Assn. said the small trail would impact points of interest, such as Keys Creek land the County acquired recently. “If the public had access to the trails within Orchard Run they could go from Keys Creek preserve to Orchard Run,” he said. “If we are going to ultimately connect to Daley Ranch we need to connect these pieces. The only way VC gets trails is by requiring residential developers to put them in.”

Del Pilar said, “All the documentation I see says there is nothing there. The County takes us seriously because we are pragmatic. If we [oppose the easement vacation] that’s going to take another shot in the face. They will ask ‘Why are they going down this lane when there is nothing there?’”

Source: Valley Roadrunner