New York City Is Using More Green Energy. But It Has a Storage Problem.

Source: By Kaya Laterman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2022

Lithium-ion batteries hold hours worth of backup power for when the city needs it. But where will they go?

Solar panels overlook two rows of large white containers, which hold batteries.
A new battery storage system in the Bronx. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

This fall, when students returned to the Junior High School 144 complex in the Pelham Gardens section of the Bronx, most of them probably didn’t notice that the odd, triangular-shaped parking lot across the street had disappeared.

In its place were two neat rows of white storage containers next to a solar canopy.

The unassuming, 7,500-square-foot parcel of land, with its clean lines and quiet machinery, is an important component of New York’s transition to renewable energy: It is a battery energy storage system.

This three-megawatt system, made up of lithium-ion battery packs, can be used for backup power when there’s a peak demand for electricity, such as on hot summer days or during extreme weather any time of year, especially during hurricane season. (It can provide electricity for about 3,000 local homes for about four hours during a peak summer day.)

Batteries can provide power to the local grid when it’s needed. They are then recharged at night, when power usage is low. Currently, batteries can only generate a few hours of power per day, but scientists are working on developing long-term storage technology of 10 or more hours.

As the nation’s power grid grapples with the effects of aging infrastructure and climate change, new policies and mandates are meeting the moment. Earlier this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul doubled the state’s battery storage target to 6,000 megawatts. (About 1,000 megawatts can power a little over 200,000 homes in New York state.) Also, the new federal climate law extended and expanded a variety of investment tax credits associated with battery storage projects, which will most likely fuel investment in this sector by about $160 billion over the next 10 years, according to a recent analysis.

Join global leaders, policymakers, activists and Times journalists at Climate Forward Sharm el Sheikh, Nov. 8 to 10, as they illuminate the most important issues being discussed at COP27.

New York has one of the most ambitious renewable energy goals in the nation, which aims for 70 percent of all electricity to be made from renewable energy by 2030. The challenge is that much of the power from offshore wind, solar and hydro projects cannot be generated when and where it’s needed most. Batteries can help solve this by storing it for when demand is high. But in New York City, where land is scarce and expensive and energy needs are constant, a rather cutthroat real-estate hustle is taking place among utilities and private energy developers that are feeling the pressure to build more and more battery storage units.

There are many variables in finding the appropriate space, said David Arfin, the chief executive of NineDot Energy, a Brooklyn-based energy developer that owns and operates the storage system in the Bronx. This includes access to grid connectivity, zoning issues and Fire Department regulations. “It’s definitely a puzzle,” he said. “A lot of times you’re looking at the lot’s topography and size, and then literally looking up to see what kind of power lines are running nearby,” added Adam Cohen, the company’s chief technology officer.

An unassuming battery storage site run by Consolidated Edison in Ozone Park, Queens, is hidden in plain sight, sandwiched in between a school, church, homes and the A train tracks.

Con Edison built it on its own land to avoid the construction of a billion-dollar substation that runs on natural gas, said Stephen Wemple, a general manager with Con Edison, which currently runs three other battery storage sites. The utility is currently building a storage project in Fox Hills, Staten Island, and plans to build a large-scale project in Astoria, Queens, while it waits for approval to build four more, some with the help of private energy developers.

“We know that everything in the transportation and building sectors — from electric vehicles, bus fleets to heat pumps — are getting electrified,” Mr. Wemple said. “So we know we need to produce and store a lot more power.”

“Everyone who is trying to do business in the city has the same question: How quickly can we get additional projects off the ground?” said Joel Obillo, a vice president at Enel North America, a Boston-based energy developer, which squeezed in a battery storage unit in the loading dock of a shopping center in East New York, Brooklyn.

In addition to the challenge of finding affordable, appropriate space, there are pandemic-related supply chain issues, which have slowed down the delivery of batteries, made them more expensive and increased the cost of building storage units by as much as 20 percent, said William Acker, the executive director of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium, a trade group. Other energy developers cited a 30 percent increase in construction costs.

For some city residents, battery-generated power cannot come soon enough. Ravenswood, a 316-megawatt project in western Queens, sits close to several public housing complexes. The facility will eventually replace fossil-fueled combustion turbines that emitted about 3,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 0.6 metric tons of methane in 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The detrimental health effects of carbon emissions have been a source of anxiety for the million-plus residents of Dutch Kills and nearby neighborhoods, an area that local officials and environmental justice groups have called “Asthma Alley.”

“There’s this urgent need to stop operating all the carbon-emitting turbines, but it’s been challenging,” said Clint Plummer, the chief executive of Rise Light & Power, the energy developer that now owns the Ravenswood project.

In the meantime, companies like NineDot are continuing to scour the city for available land. The company, which recently secured a $100 million investment, is looking to build and operate another dozen storage projects next year in all five boroughs, as well as in Westchester and on Long Island.

“People are watching New York to see how a dense, urban area can decarbonize,” Mr. Arfin said. “We think we can show them how.”