Battery storage project proposal concerns Seaforth residents
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A proposed $400 million energy storage project near Seaforth found little support from the more than 200 people who attended a public meeting at the Seaforth Agriplex last week.
The project is being put forward by BluEarth Renewables, the same company that now owns the St. Columban wind energy project that proved controversial so many years ago. It proposes the placement of between 200 and 400 sea can containers (about 20 feet long each) on between 25 and 30 acres of what is considered to be prime agricultural land.
According to the BluEarth website, the Seaforth Storage Project, as it’s being called, will be a 200-megawatt, 800-megawatt hour battery energy storage project. However, as company representatives repeatedly reminded those at the meeting, the project is in its very early stages and has yet to procure numerous approvals, meaning there are a number of roadblocks the project could hit along the way that would result in its termination. The project still has to win approval from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) and, in order to do that, it must also win the hearts and minds of Huron East Council in the form of a Municipal Support Resolution (MSR). There is also an extensive site plan approval process, according to BluEarth representatives.
Company representatives stated that the project needs an MSR to move forward. If the company doesn’t get one prior to IESO approval of the project, it has 18 months from that date to obtain one from council. As one BluEarth employee said to the crowd, “if council says ‘no’, we don’t have a project,” which was met with thunderous applause from those in attendance.
While the proposed site is on prime agricultural land, those at BluEarth say it was chosen due to its proximity to existing transmission line infrastructure and a lack of environmental features on the land. Furthermore, the company says that there is a decommissioning and restoration plan for the land to return it to its pre-project state once the project has run its course. The life span of the batteries, they said at the meeting, is 20 years and 95 per cent of the contents of the batteries that will be used are recyclable.
The company’s website states that batteries, specifically lithium batteries, represent, “the most scalable form of energy storage technology, because they can be installed nearly anywhere, have a small footprint, and are relatively inexpensive.”
Each sea can unit would have its own HVAC and coolant system, BluEarth representatives said, and they will be spaced out far enough that, in the unlikely event of a fire, the unit in question will not threaten others. The site will also be monitored around the clock for any kind of emergency and, in the case of one, it will be shut down immediately, they said.
Safety of the project was top of mind for many in attendance and those from BluEarth said it was top of mind for them too. However, because there is no site plan yet and many factors remain up in the air in regards to the project, the company has yet to consult with the Huron East Fire Department or other emergency service providers.
However, they said that the safety of local firefighters is paramount and the company, when the time comes, will work with local firefighters in regards to necessary training and equipment needed to fight the specific types of fires that could occur at a battery storage site.
Some in attendance noted that electrical fires like those that may occur at such a site could not be fought with water, so local firefighters may need additional equipment and training in order to safely fight a fire at the site and they felt the company should shoulder those costs.
In regards to the safety of the project, BluEarth also stated that the current generation of battery projects are a lot more stable and safer than those of previous generations, though some in attendance expressed their doubts.
People also raised concerns about the agricultural aspects of the project, including taking prime agricultural land out of production and the impact, if any, that the project may have on nearby farms in terms of groundwater, stray voltage and livestock.
Company representatives said that the batteries and containers don’t contain liquid that could leak, so groundwater contamination in the event of an emergency shouldn’t be a concern and that the only liquid that could leak would be the coolant. They also stated that they were not aware of any studies or research that has been conducted that shows battery storage negatively impacting livestock, or humans for that matter.
Some asked about the involvement of Huron East Council to this point and several members spoke to those gathered to set the story straight. Mayor Bernie MacLellan, Deputy-Mayor Alvin McLellan and much of council was also in attendance for the meeting.
The mayor told the group that BluEarth had only spoken to council once before, late last year, and that was for an earlier version of the project that would have been located on a different site. The company says it has not yet returned to a council meeting and has no immediate plans to return, as it is still so very early in the process.
That project, according to the BluEarth employees, could not go ahead for a number of reasons, which is what led them to the site being proposed on Maple Line, east of Seaforth and south of Hydro Line Road.
The employees explained that the project works as a storage for power generated at off-peak times, such as overnight, by wind turbines; it can then be dispatched when called upon by the IESO when needed at high-demand times. They said the company’s only customer is the IESO, which is akin to the provincial government, and that it wouldn’t be buying electricity from the province and selling it back to Ontarians at a profit, as someone at the meeting had suggested.
If approved, the employees said, the project would still not be operational for a number of years, perhaps 2026 or 2027.
As far as the meeting itself was concerned, several members of the public sounded alarm bells over notification and spreading the word, saying they felt the company was trying to fly under the radar. A representative said that was far from the case, noting that BluEarth had gone above and beyond provincial notification requirements.
The company is required to notify landowners within 2,000 metres of the project, which she said the company did, in addition to placing advertisements in local newspapers and posting on the Municipality of Huron East’s website. And yet, some people who claimed to be within the 2,000-metre zone said they had not been notified, which the employees said they would investigate further.
BluEarth also noted a number of community outreach initiatives it undertakes if a project is successful, such as a scholarship program, annual donations to local causes and more. Some in attendance, however, weren’t swayed by those offers, drawing comparisons to the controversial vibrancy funds offered to communities that hosted wind turbine projects years ago.
When asked about setbacks, the employees said that, because it’s so early in the process, proper setbacks had yet to be established, but that 800 metres would be a safe bet, though the reason for the setback would really just be noise.
Representatives said the noise created by the site would be held to a limit of 40 decibels, which they described as a “whisper in a library”. Again, some in attendance had their doubts, raising the issues of noise related to wind turbines which was another topic of controversy at that time.
Representatives also noted that the site will be subject to a number of studies, including hydrogeological and archeological studies, as well as stormwater management and more before site plan approval could be granted.
Residents also expressed concerns about diminished property values as a result of living near the project, but representatives said there have not been any studies that have proven that to be the case.
MacLellan then addressed the crowd, reiterating that no requests on the current project had been made of council. He said that, if and when the group approaches council, seeking approval, council would have the discussion then, but as of right now, nothing is on the table for them.
Seaforth Councillor Bob Fisher then asked what the group’s Plan B is, should council choose not to approve the project.
“If council says no, we don’t have a project,” a company representative stated.