Residents in a Brooklyn building say they feel like “guinea pigs” in a plan to install 150-ton lithium-ion batteries on the roof of their building.
Microgrid Networks’ plan to install the first large-scale residential project in New York City already has FDNY approval and is awaiting special permission from the city, but residents of the Williamsburg building continue to worry about their safety.
“They just want to push this through and it will catch on fire and I will lose my home and potentially my life, or loved ones,” Jennifer Kuipers, an artist who has lived in a large industrial loft on the fifth floor since 1995, said at a Community Board meeting Tuesday night. “It would happen very fast and then it’s like, ‘Oops, oh well, now we’ll make laws.’”
The board has agreed and advised against the project. Board members said the plan, first reported by Bklyner, was too risky, echoing concerns among tenants who fear a deadly fire or a roof collapse due to the weight of the equipment.
Skeptics have pointed to a spate of fires sparked by e-bike and e-scooter batteries as a warning of what could come to their building, even as company officials and scientists say the two are not related and projects like this are needed to move New York toward its climate goals.
“We don’t see a path for installing the amount of energy storage in NYC that’s required without it being part of residential buildings and part of residential districts,” Microgrid Chief Operating Officer Timothy Dumbleton told Gothamist. “We don’t see how you meet the state’s goals without that happening.”
The company has two other battery projects in the works in manufacturing zones in Maspeth, Queens and near Newtown Creek in East Williamsburg, and hopes to establish 70 battery storage sites that generate about 350 megawatts – about 6% of the state’s goal – by 2030.
Microgrid has spent nearly $400,000 lobbying city officials to place the energy storage equipment on the roof of 315 Berry St. since 2020, records show.
The batteries store energy and pump it back into the grid, with companies like Con Edison beginning to wedge the boxes into empty lots and on top of commercial buildings, like the Barclays Center and Kennedy Airport.
New York State has embraced lithium iron phosphate batteries as a green alternative to fossil fuel-burning peaker plants, which kick in during times of increased energy demand. Gov. Kathy Hochul committed New York to developing 6,000 megawatts of energy storage by 2030. That’s enough to potentially power up to 4 million homes for a few hours, said Dan Steingart, a chemical engineering professor at Columbia University.
“I would love to see more batteries all over New York City,” Steingart said. “We can really make the grid more stable and reduce our electricity costs.”
Concerns over new technology
Residents in the seven-story former munitions factory also say they have doubts about the landlord’s ability to properly maintain the equipment and surrounding infrastructure.
The Department of Buildings hit 315 Berry St. with a partial vacate order in April 2021 after inspectors found “parts of the building exterior” had fallen off. The building is now undergoing exterior renovations. Chris Quirk, a resident since 1996, said it is about time.
“Twenty years ago I had an 8-foot piece of cement fall out of the fifth-floor window and land on my car and destroy it,” he said. “It was miraculous that no one was killed.”
FDNY Battalion Chief Michael Maiz said at the community board meeting that the department is confident in the safety of the equipment. The FDNY issued extensive battery storage rules in 2019 and has ordered Microgrid and the landlord to take several precautions, like building water hook-ups and manual shut-off switches.
“We are concerned about the civilians as well as our firefighters ourselves, so we just don't let them install anything,” said Maiz. “There’s a lot of requirements before this thing is even approved.”
He sought to calm residents’ concerns that they could fall victim to a blaze similar to ones sparked by e-bike battery fires.
“E-bike batteries are totally different,” Maiz said. “They’re not regulated.”
Dumbleton, the Microgrid COO, said safety is paramount at the Berry Street site because it is the company’s first foray into battery storage on a residential rooftop in New York City. He dismissed concerns over the weight of the equipment, saying 150 tons is a fraction of the weight of one- and two-story additions added to buildings.
“We’re trying to solve a real problem that the city has and the state and the city are telling us to solve this problem,” Dumbleton said.
He and the property owner’s agent, Richie Herbst, declined to disclose how much Microgrid is paying to lease the rooftop but said it was less than $5,000 a month.
Herbst said the project has become a headache after years of preparation, pushback and approval processes.
“If you ask me if I would do it again, I wouldn’t,” he said. “But I don’t want to discourage anyone else because this is the way we dig out of our energy crisis and we should all be cooperating and participating.”