Turning away from fossil fuels is the central challenge to saving the global climate.
Getting more energy from clean sources is only part of the puzzle. The same goes for storing that energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Just south of Seattle, a proposed industrial-scale energy storage facility is bringing neighbors to tears.
Omaha-based Tenaska, one of the nation’s largest private companies, wants to cover nine acres of undeveloped land in Renton with banks of lithium batteries. The facility could discharge 250 megawatts of power – about the power of a large coal-fired power plant, or one-tenth the typical power supplied by Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility – for four hours at that time.
“It’s really huge,” said activist Fred Heutte of the nonprofit Northwest Energy Coalition.
“There were almost none five years ago,” Heuette said of large energy storage centers. “And now we’re seeing really big ones installed all over the world.”
Energy experts say people should expect a lot more energy storage to be built as the world transitions from dirty to clean energy.
In a letter to city officials, Tenaska wrote that the $250 million project would position Renton as a leader in Washington’s fight for a carbon-free future and increase the resilience of the electric grid.
But neighbors living 50 feet away are crying foul.
“We believe in green energy, but not if it threatens communities, families, the environment, wildlife and our waterways,” Nicola Robinson, a nurse, told a town council meeting. from Renton on Monday.
In April, the city imposed a six-month moratorium on battery storage proposals while it determines where they can be safely and legally installed.
The city’s land use planning code currently lacks a category for energy storage.
The mostly forested land that Tenaska wants to pack with lithium batteries is zoned for “resource conservation,” a designation that in Renton only allows “very low-density residential uses.”
Opponents have touted the land’s value as a wildlife habitat while Tenaska’s proposal says it is mostly covered with invasive Himalayan blackberries.
Tenaska’s proposal shows houses located 50 feet from the south side of the facility. Neighbor Lori Goeman said she was baffled.
“It’s not zoned for that sort of thing, so how can it even be considered?” she says.
“Orient them to a different location where it’s not close to a community,” Goeman told the council.
Renton’s planning commission is due to hold a hearing on the proposal on July 20 and then make its recommendation to city council.
Lithium batteries have no moving parts and their use produces no air or water pollution. But sometimes they tend to overheat or catch fire.
This is why the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits spare or uninstalled lithium batteries in checked baggage.
Lithium battery factories in Arizona and California have caught fire and even exploded in recent years.
Nine first responders in a suburb of Phoenix were injured when a 2-megawatt battery storage facility they attempted to shut down exploded in 2019.
In April 2022, a 10 megawatt battery storage facility in another Phoenix suburb caught fire. Firefighters sent robots to open the doors. Then they let the facility air out for a day to allow the dangerous gases to dissipate before entering the building.
According to Tenaska’s proposal, the proposed Renton facility “would include built-in safety devices and multi-layered fire protection features designed to prevent thermal runaway and fire spread.”
Seattle energy storage consultant Russ Weed, who is not connected with the Renton project, said the industry has spent a lot of time and money to reduce the risk of lithium battery fires.
“If we’re all going to have electric vehicles, we’re going to have to have storage,” Weed said.
“Let’s say they charge home,” he said. “If everyone uses their distribution system at home between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. because people are coming home and plugging in, it will stress the network. So you need storage to deal with that.
Heuette said the Northwest Energy Coalition advocates for clean energy but does not take a position on individual projects.
“We see a real need for this kind of storage resources,” Heuette said. “That doesn’t mean they have to be in everyone’s neighborhood.”
Energy storage can be added at various points along an electrical network, including electrical substations or existing power plants.
The Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility in Northeastern Oregon started operating in March with a combination of wind turbines, solar panels and 30 megawatts of on-site battery storage.