What are battery energy storage systems and why are they meeting so much opposition in Ontario communities like Stirling and Napanee?

A completed battery storage facility in Collingwood, Ontario – Image via PRNewsfoto/Convergent Energy + Power

Companies focused on new methods of energy conservation are banging on the doors of rural municipalities, leading to concern and confusion for the residents of those communities. Now they are being asked to make decisions on whether these systems should be welcomed or denied with little information to guide their choice.

When Michael Thompson received notice that Liberty Power would be coming to Stirling-Rawdon to talk about building a battery energy storage system (BESS) near his home, he said he was one of a few who knew about it.

“I knocked on over 180 doors and hardly anyone knew,” he said. “Liberty Power’s Henry Hawkins said that residents surrounding the possible facility site were the ones notified, though it’s good to have the whole community fully aware.”

The same thing took place in Greater Napanee, where energy company EDF Renewables is asking to build a BESS facility on County Road 9, close to the Bay of Quinte. At Greater Napanee’s council meeting on Nov. 14, the council had to postpone making their decision after listening to concerned citizens for three hours about how they felt about the facility.

“I understand the role of BESS in the province’s goal, but County Road 9 is not appropriate,” said Michael Stockfish, Napanee resident. “I think we need it, but I am very opposed to where they want to put it.”

Minister for Energy Todd Smith said Ontario is moving to a focus on electricity to run day-to-day life, such as electric cars, ductless heating or switching to electric stoves from gas. With a growing demand for energy, Smith said energy storage is a means to avoid possible brownouts or blackouts as demand grows. He has given the independent energy storage operator (IESO) the goal of housing 2,500 megawatts of power by 2027, with directions to work with private companies and municipalities to build the facilities.

“This is one of the largest procurements of battery storage in the country. We haven’t seen this type of growth since 2005, and so we know to support that type of growth we are going to need sources of reliable and clean energy,” said Smith.

The batteries the IESO is using are Lithium ion batteries, and one of the greatest concerns voiced in both communities has been the potential for fire. If they malfunction and catch fire, the batteries can burn at a dangerously high heat and need special training to be subdued. Smith said that these batteries have been used in Ontario for over 10 years now for other forms of energy storage like wind and solar, and have not faced an incident in the province.

“There might have been fires or other issues in other parts of the world, but never here in Ontario. Our policies might be different from what you’d find elsewhere and those help to ensure the safety of these facilities.”

William Colucci from EDF Renewables agreed, saying his company works closely with local fire departments to provide special training for BESS facilities, and they will ensure the Napanee fire department has the proper equipment to face a possible battery accident. Concerns were raised about where the water would come from for such an event, and how they would ensure the runoff from a battery fire wouldn’t enter the Bay of Quinte. Colucci said that would be a conversation with the fire department.

In both Stirling and Napanee, concerns were raised around the noise of the facility. Citizens in Napanee were told that there would be a humming noise, but Colucci said they purposefully set the facility over one kilometre from the nearest dwelling to avoid noise pollution. And in Stirling, residents were told the sound level would be around 45 decibels, similar to that of a new dishwasher.

The facilities, largely unmanned, look like rows of metal lockers, each housing a battery. By hooking into the transmission line the batteries would slowly store power, much like plugging in a cell phone to charge at home, or an electric vehicle at a charging station. Napanee residents shared worry that they would be an eyesore in the area, and would drive potential homeowners away from building properties nearby.

In Stirling, concerns were raised about what would happen to the batteries once they reach the end of their lifecycles. The minister said the technology is continually advancing for the creation of these batteries, and also for their recycling and renewal.

“Some of these products will be able to be recovered and moved into new batteries. There are a lot of electric vehicle facilities that are using the used battery to refurbish it to then be used in power stations to charge more cars. That kind of innovation is happening every day.”

Smith said the decision to build such a facility is in the hands of councils and their communities. He said he hopes that when a community is called to this decision they will take time to really educate themselves on battery storage and what it would mean for the province.

“Communities need to take a good hard look on how they can play a role in ensuring we have the power that we need going forward,” he said “We’ve given them the power to be partners on these projects instead of the government forcing them into communities, so it’s really important they educate themselves.”

Stirling-Rawdon will be having a council meeting on Nov. 20, at which they will discuss whether Liberty Power will build in the village; Greater Napanee has moved their decision to Nov. 28. At that time they will also be deciding whether the Atura natural gas plant will be allowed to expand and increase the power it can produce, another controversial energy choice for the community.

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