Eversource plans O.B. battery facility

Questions arise about zoning exclusion, fire potential.

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The Eversource team that pitched a battery facility during a hearing at the high school Tuesday night. — Rich Saltzberg

The Energy Facilities Siting Board of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) held a hearing at the high school on a 14.7 megawatt battery facility proposed for Eversource property off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs.

The batteries are meant to offset the burden on Eversource backup generators in the event any of the four submarine cables feeding the Vineyard should fail, according to Eversource transmission project manager Brian Bosse, who gave an overview of the proposal and fielded questions from the audience afterward.

The batteries will be housed in a 6,000 square foot “Cape-style building,” according to a release.  

Oak Bluffs Planning Board chairman Ewell Hopkins said one of the “key reasons” he was present at the hearing was because the planning board was not officially notified of the proposal.  

“I also was struck by the foundation of this hearing discussing zoning exemptions,” he said.

Hopkins went on to say he believed the planning board had the authority to bestow exemptions as opposed to relying on the DPU. He also said he hoped ongoing oversight and hearings on the proposal would occur locally. He specifically pointed to one leg of the hearing process that’s slated for Boston that he believed could see curtained local input because of the vagaries of ferries and weather.

Andrea Rogers, chairman of the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals, also had qualms about being outside the process.

“That property is in a residential area,” she said. “And I can’t speak for the whole board at this time, but for myself, I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to come before us and let the board weigh in on everything that’s happening. That’s a really crucial area with residents around you.”

In the residential district where the facility would be located, the ZBA doesn’t have the authority to issue a use variance, Erika Hafner, outside counsel for Eversource, told Rogers.

“The DPU does have authority under section 40a to exempt facilities from zoning in certain circumstances and this is something that does come up throughout the commonwealth when there is an energy project in an area where it’s not explicitly [nonresidential],” she said.

“I still believe it should come under the zoning board and we should be allowed to weigh in on it,” Rogers said. “It’s a small town. It’s a small Island. And people who live here really want to know what’s going on and they want their boards to act on their behalf.

Hopkins then told Eversource reps and Joan Foster Evans, general counsel for the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the planning board and the ZBA work “hand in hand” and would sort out who best should assert authority over the matter.

Llewellyn Rogers, an associate member of the zoning board, asked how safe the batteries were, especially in light of press coverage of fires and failures from lithium batteries.  

“If one blows up, do they all blow up at the same time?” he asked.

Bosse said the batteries Eversource will use are safe and different that the ones in the press, which he described as having a “host” of issues, notably “material deficiencies” and “production deficiencies.”

Charlotte Ancel, Eversource director of clean energy development, later told The Times the battery facility would be behind a 10-foot concrete wall and that the batteries would be equipped with automatic and remote sensors that “immediately disconnects from the Eversource grid” all batteries in the event of an emergency. She also said the building that will house the batteries will have a built-in fire suppression system.

“We’ve been in consultation with the Oak Bluffs Fire Department and we will continue to do that,” she said.

Lithium ion batteries can succumb to a domino heat phenomenon known as thermal runaway, according to the 2018 scientific article  “Li-Ion Battery Fire Hazards and Safety Strategies.” The phenomenon can lead to the combustion of the batteries. There are several methods to hedge against thermal runaway in the batteries. While Ancel did not speak to them specifically, she did say Eversource would use “state of the art best practices” to ensure safety.

Abutter Bruce Miller, who lives on Iron Hill Road in Oak Bluffs and the treasurer of the Iron Hill Farm HOA, said his community has concerns about noise.

Bossee said the facility has been designed so that any sonic increase it generates “will not be perceptible to the human ear.”

Ancel later told The Times the concrete wall, in addition to other protections it may convey, will blunt outgoing sound.

Foster Evans closed the hearing and said March 1 is the deadline for comments about the proposal to the DPU.

Comments should be sent by 5 pm March 1 to Mark Marini, secretary, DPU, One South Station, Boston, MA 02110. Email comments can be sent to the Department at dpu.efiling@mass.gov; the company’s counsel, David Rosenzweig, at drosen@keeganwerlin.com; and hearing officer Stephen August, at Stephen.August@mass.gov.