Since 2020, a plan has been underway to install 15 lithium-ion batteries (2.5 megawatts) on the roof of 315 Berry Street. The batteries will support Con Edison’s renewable energy initiatives by supplying power to their Water Street Substation. However, not everyone — namely the tenants of the aforementioned building — is on board with the idea.
MicroGrid Networks, the for-profit company behind the proposal, has been working with the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals and building landlord Richard Herbst to install the reported 300,000-pound battery bank on the roof of the 7-floor, 49-unit building, which would be one of the first installations of its kind atop a residential building in New York City. Early last month, the Board of Standards and Appeals — which is required to approve such a project — granted a special permit to MicroGrid to proceed with the installation.
And since the plan became public knowledge, tenants have been fighting it from a place of safety concerns, especially due to the recent rise in lithium battery fires plaguing the city. Some tenants remain unsure, citing their uncertainty about the ability of an older building(it was built in 1929 and previously served as a munition factory) to withstand the project and any subsequent impacts, plus the FDNY’s ability to fight and contain a fire if it were to arise. In fact, Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 voted 30 to 1 against.
“It’s hard to fathom that they want to put this kind of technology on the roof of a building where more than a hundred people are already living and inconvenience everybody, plus the possibility of something happening,” said Steve Silver, a decades-long resident of 315 Berry and organizer of a GoFundMe to assist with legal fees as they continue to push back against the BSA.
The GoFundMe states that the funds are specifically to retain both a lawyer and structural engineer and argues that there must be a better place to build such a system, despite a 2021 MicroGrid presentation for CB1 suggesting that it is one of only two sites that meet their requirements.
Just yesterday, New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh addressed the rise of said fires in the city and what makes them different from others (namely that the batteries don’t smolder, they just explode) while advocating for mandatory safety standards to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“We have reached a point of crisis in New York City, with ion batteries now a top cause of fatal fires in New York,” Kavanagh explained. “Once one of these ignites, there is a huge volume of fire, often so much so that the person in their home can’t get out and the firefighters can’t get in to get them.”
Last month, four people in an adjoining apartment building were killed by a fire at an e-bike shop caused by lithium-ion batteries.
However, advocates of the Berry Street installation allege that these particular lithium-ion batteries — UL (Underwriters Laboratories) batteries — are different from the ones commonly used in e-bikes. For Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, this distinction is an important one:
“Even though it’s still a lithium battery, there is such a different level of oversight in design. There are two kinds of lithium batteries for e-bikes that are widely recognized as safe — they are UL batteries and they are EU batteries — but they are expensive. Those two kinds of batteries do not catch fire in the way that we see like these cheaper batteries being produced,” Gallagher explained.
“If we are having an official MicroGrid manufacturer install a battery that is meant for high-scale battery storage, it is not going to be similar to that e-bike delivery type, it is going to be more similar to Barclays or to the Tesla kind of battery that you put on the building.”
Gallagher wasn’t always on board with the idea, though. She admitted that her gut reaction was opposition when community members first came to her with concerns. It wasn’t until she met with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to learn the parameters for evaluating the safety of such a plan that she became convinced it was not only safe, but incredibly important to the borough’s green goals (calling lithium-ion battery banks “lockstep” with renewable energy) and that residential zoning played a part in the site decision.
FDNY also hosted an information session with CB1 earlier this year to tell neighbors and tenants that they’ve deemed MicroGrid’s plan safe, and Gallagher is actively planning additional sessions for the fall.
That’s not to say that tenants’ anxieties are unfounded. Aside from fire concerns, the building is experiencing cracks in the walls, has past instances of flooding, has had 77 DOB violations — 17 of which are still open and range from a cracked, falling facade to a failure to file an elevator inspection — and a partial vacate order due to the aforementioned facade, which lends itself to the opposition’s idea that acceptance of the project may mean a big payday for their landlord (who allegedly initially sent an email simply saying that their building was going green).
“I just find the whole thing appalling, just so incredibly greedy,” Silver said. “I hope that by us fighting back, they’ll get the idea that they ought to find a better place.”