As Williamsburg Tenants Fight Rooftop Battery Installation, City Moves to Make Them As of Right
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As Williamsburg Tenants Fight Rooftop Battery Installation, City Moves to Make Them As of Right

Aug 09, 2023

A rooftop lithium-ion battery installation is planned for the roof of 315 Berry Street, pictured in 2012. Photo by Christopher McBride for PropertyShark

Editor's Note: This morning, New York City's Board of Standards and Appeals approved a special permit for the installation of a battery energy storage system at 315 Berry Street, allowing MicroGrid Networks to proceed with the Department of Building's permitting process.

Tenants in an early 20th century Williamsburg building fighting the installation of lithium ion batteries on their roof – one of the first residential installations citywide – are highlighting a situation that could play out across the city if a Department of City Planning zoning text amendment goes ahead as proposed.

The tenants at 315 Berry have been battling MicroGrid Networks in front of the city's Board of Standards and Appeals since 2021, when they found out the company, with their landlords approval, planned to install a energy storage system that would supply Williamsburg's strained Water Street Substation, run by Con Ed, with an added 3 megawatts power. (The station's current capacity is approximately 375 megawatts.)

MicroGrid Networks has applied for a special permit to undertake the installation in a residential area. If the mayor's City of Yes plans are adopted, a special permit will no longer be needed and an owner can install such a system as of right.

Apparent water damage inside one of the apartments at 315 Berry Street. Photo via Olivia Silver

While tenants Brownstoner spoke to support the transition to green energy, they said they don't want decisions to be made that could put New Yorkers at risk, and they have fears about fire safety and their building's ability to hold the weight of the water that would be needed to fight a battery fire, as well as FDNY's ability to fight the fire.

"A recent fire in the Bronx, it completely destroyed the buildings," tenant Steve Silver said at a March BSA hearing. "It was manufactured, this fire, by one e-bike. What they’re proposing to put on our roof is the equivalent of 30,000 e-bikes."

Tenant Lawrence Swan said noone would want the installation, a total of 15 batteries, above their heads. "I don't think you would want it on your roof, and I don't think the people who own MicroGrid would want it on their homes. The landlord wouldn't want it on his. But you know the tenants here have very little to say. We don't like it, we don't want it."

Swan said if installing battery systems on rooftops has to be done, it should be on new builds that could be designed to hold them, rather than a near 100-year-old factory.

Tenants say the building at 315 Berry Street is not well maintained and regularly has trash piled up outside. Photo via Olivia Silver

However, throughout the process MicroGrid Networks has argued the batteries are proven to be safe, and are not the same as the batteries in e-bikes frequently in the news for sparking house fires; that engineers have shown the building – a former munitions factory – can support them and the water weight of fighting a fire; and that the FDNY has rigorous systems in place to manage the batteries.

Ultimately, MicroGrid Networks says clean energy storage is desperately needed in New York, and using residential buildings for that storage is required to make the transition to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.

The seven-story, 49-unit building, according to tenants, is the city's first building converted with the loft law in the ’70s, and many long standing rent stabilized artist tenants still live there. It currently has 57 open violations, and tenants said managing agent Richie Herbst of 315 Berry St Corp, the building's owner, is not responsive to fixing issues, compounding fears the building won't be properly equipped to manage the project.

Brownstoner reached out to Herbst, but did not hear back by the time of publication. Herbst told BK Reader in 2022 he would be getting "much less" than $5,000 per month for leasing the roof space to MicroGrid Networks.

A hole in the stairwell at 315 Berry Street. Photo via Oliver Silver

While the FDNY has issued a letter of no objection to the project, tenants said firefighters told them at a recent community board meeting that they have no experience fighting such battery fires. In 2021, the local fire department started a petition against the project, tenants said.

Tenant Dana Kane questioned at the recent BSA hearing "how do you think we feel knowing that firemen don't want to go on the roof if there's an explosion?"

"You can't, nor can MicroGrid, guarantee that the project won't explode. And that is the problem in a nutshell," she told the commissioners.

Kane said BSA is passing the buck on the safety of the installation to the Department of Buildings. "Each [agency] including the BSA are careful to assert that it's not their responsibility. It's another agency. That's not good enough. We expect more from our city officials."

Tenant Jennifer Kuipers said at the hearing her biggest concern wasn't a fire but a collapse of the building's roof. "When the fire commissioner spoke at that one public meeting for the record, he did say to my questions directly that you can't put out these battery fires once there's thermal runaway, all you can do is douse the batteries to try to keep them cool enough and from exploding, and our building is not structurally [adequate] — it cannot drain that amount of water."

Tenant Olivia Silver shares those concerns, and said the tenants had received "zero specifics" on how FDNY would fight a fire on the roof. "How this is being allowed to me is like, it's insanity, it's totally beyond me that this is being permitted," she said.

Silver told Brownstoner she "had nothing against" battery storage and green energy, "I know that it's a huge, huge problem in the city right now and that they’re trying to find solutions." However, she said she didn't think putting a relatively new technology on a residential building with around 100 tenants is a good idea. "This is a depressing situation," she said.

A crack in an apartment wall at 315 Berry Street. Photo via Olivia Silver

The International Code Council issued a guide on energy storage systems (ESS) earlier this year that says ESS are much safer than "poorly regulated consumer products" and today's systems are "markedly safer than those installed even two or three years ago, and it is expected that those installed two or three years in the future will be safer than those installed today."

However, the guide, meant for building officials, emergency services, planners, architects, and engineers, says "as with any new technology, there are understandable questions regarding the safety of lithium-ion battery energy storage systems." Notably, fires and explosions.

Fires in energy storage systems in Arizona, China, and Korea have highlighted the risks the systems pose, and the need for meticulous procedures in battery development, installation, and maintenance.

With the global increase in energy storage systems, a number of organizations including Underwriters Laboratory, FEMA, and the Fire Protection Research Foundation are conducting research into how to ensure the safety of the new technology, and establishing standards to govern the systems.

Flooding inside an apartment at 315 Berry Street. Photo via Olivia Silver

National Fire Protection Association engineer Brian O’Connor told Brownstoner while there isn't a national best approach to fighting ESS fires, a range of training resources has been developed to "keep our firefighters safe, and the public safe, and extinguish these fires in a manner that everyone's happy with."

He said while lithium-ion energy storage systems include battery management systems, thermal management systems, and other technologies built in to try to prevent the storage systems from going into thermal runaway, precautions still need to be taken with them, risks mitigated, and regulation put in place. He said if thermal runaway does occur in a rooftop battery, a fire could "absolutely" spread across buildings.

"The biggest challenge of these battery systems is that they’re not something we’re used to dealing with, it's a new technology that has these unique characteristics that we have to take specific steps to protect against. Those steps exist, but it's still something we haven't completely, I guess, familiarized all of the fire industry about, and it's a challenge trying to get the information out there," he said.

A rep for FDNY told Brownstoner the department issued its letter of no objection to the project after the "proposed installation was fully reviewed by our Bureau of Fire Prevention and Bureau of Fire Operations."

The rep said FDNY heard that the installation "will provide energy to the utility grid and that it has been placed on a building rooftop because of the scarcity of available ground locations in the community. The fact that the proposed installation is on an outdoor rooftop would serve to mitigate some of the hazards associated with SESS installations."

Image via MicroGrid Networks’ special permit application to the Board of Standards and Appeals

While it has asked the BSA to require MicroGrid Networks to include additional safety measures (a fire alarm, water spray system, standpipe riser, distance from recreation area, security enclosures, fire rated panels on platform, and clearances from parapet walls) ultimately the projects approval is in the BSA's hands. "The Fire Department has addressed only the fire safety and firefighting aspects of the proposed installation," the rep said.

While the BSA must approve the special permit for the project to move forward, the Department of Buildings must also issue permits and other agencies are involved in giving approval.

Michael Kozak, a lawyer the tenants recently hired with help from funds from a GoFundMe, argued at the hearing that the installation couldn't go ahead legally regardless of safety issues, given it breached the rent stabilization laws. The law, he said, requires permission from Department of Housing and Community Renewal before any changes are made to tenants’ services – in this case roof, elevator, and loading dock access.

However, Lobel, MicroGrid Networks’ lawyer, said special permits issued by the BSA are "narrowly tailored in order to provide specific relief to applicants," and the criteria they are assessed on is whether the project would serve the residential area it is being installed in and whether options for location that wouldn't require a special permit had been fully explored. He said, over the past two years, MicroGrid Networks had satisfied all the requirements for the permit to be issued.

He added other city departments, such as the Department of Buildings and Fire Department, are responsible for establishing safety protocols, not the Board of Standards and Appeals.

The roof at 315 Berry Street and those of its neighbors. Image via MicroGrid Networks’ special permit application to the Board of Standards and Appeals

Nonetheless, it's not just tenants who have reservations against the project, with community board 1 also voting to disapprove it. Chair Stephen Chesler said at the hearing when an FDNY battalion chief appeared in front of the board and was given examples of fires from large-scale energy storage systems in other states and countries, he noted the department only has experience with extinguishing fires from small-scale lithium batteries.

In February, the community board voted unanimously "to reiterate its severe reservations about the safety of locating an electric substation" on the residential building, Chesler told commissioners. He said while the board supports innovation and adaption addressing climate change, it does not support "initiatives that could recklessly endanger residents."

The BSA is scheduled to make a decision on the special permit at its June 5 meeting. Chair Shampa Chanda said at the March hearing the BSA's decision has to be based on whether MicroGrid Networks has met the findings that the installation will serve the neighborhood, and that finding an alternate site in an as-of-right zoning district is not possible. Other agencies, she said, are responsible for issuing other permits and seeing the project move forward.

"Ours is just one of many, many steps to this project getting erected, so I just want to put that on the record," she said.

At the hearing, she thanked speakers for "pointing out very critical factors," which she said the BSA would bring to the attention of other agencies to "ensure that buildings safety, and the operation does not impinge on the safety and security of the building and the tenants."

The roof at 315 Berry Street. Image via MicroGrid Networks’ special permit application to the Board of Standards and Appeals

MicroGrid Networks Chief Operating Officer Timothy Dumbleton told Brownstoner the project not only meets severe needs in the community, with the Water Street Network in Williamsburg being one of the most stressed networks in the city, he said scientists, engineers, and other experts have proven the technology is safe.

He said the company had searched for years for locations for the storage system that wouldn't require the permit, but said it hadn't found anything. He added that the leasing price for battery storage equipment can't compete with residential rental prices, making it near impossible to find land in Williamsburg.

Dumbleton said the New York City Fire Department has some of the strictest rules in the world for battery storage, including that batteries be UL certified, and the city has additional rules regarding battery safety. He said MicroGrid Networks has had a number of engineers evaluate the project and the building's capacity, who he said all determined the roof is able to support the weight of the project. Nonetheless, he said it is up to the DOB to establish the building's fitness for the project, not BSA.

"I think what you need to understand about residential districts and batteries is that if New York City is going to decarbonize, there have to be many, many, many, many projects installed in all districts of New York City – residential, commercial, manufacturing, industrial areas – all need batteries otherwise you don't get to decarbonize," Dumbleton added.

Image via MicroGrid Networks’ special permit application to the Board of Standards and Appeals

And the city agrees. In Department of City Planning's City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality zoning amendments, small energy storage systems taking up less than 10,000 feet would become as-of-right on residential buildings. Currently, ESS installations are allowed as-of-right in commercial and manufacturing districts only.

At a recent reporter's roundtable, DCP chair and director Dan Garodnick said having a distributed energy generation and storage system in the city requires batteries to be installed safely citywide. He said DCP had heard concerns about ESS from the community, but said the systems in the city would be professionally installed, overseen by DOB, and endorsed by FDNY. He said this "is a contrast from what I think has been occupying the news recently, which is, you know, these electric bikes where you have batteries that are regulated by nobody, frequently attached improperly, and where they are creating dangerous conditions for people."

"So I think it's just important to note that these are the the only similarity between these two things is the word ‘battery.’ This is an entirely different level of engagement with government and professionals and we have never seen a problem with the energy storage systems that we are talking about here."

According to a presentation on the issue held by DCP, the "battery-based systems are thoroughly reviewed, extremely safe, and are completely different from the systems found in common e-bike batteries."

It says each storage system will be "essentially custom designed and installed by specially trained engineers and electricians" and that "all installations must use UL-certified technologies pre-approved by FDNY" and reviewed on a site specific basis by DOB.

All installations larger than 250 kilawatts are classified as "large" systems and also all must be reviewed by DOB and FDNY, the DCP said in the presentation, while installations with footprints larger than 10,000 feet would still require BSA review before being installed in a residential district.

"We have been working with FDNY and DOB to develop the proposal and will continue conversations with the agencies around the safety of this technology," the city said in the presentation. With the amendments currently out for public review, DCP is encouraging New Yorkers to reach out to their community boards, borough president, and city council members to share questions or concerns.

When it comes to building insurance, Danielle Lombardo, a partner at real estate insurance firm Lockton, said that from an insurer standpoint she doesn't see the energy storage systems as a concern.

The battery installation will take up just over 5,000 square feet. Image via MicroGrid Networks’ special permit application to the Board of Standards and Appeals

A rep for Department of City Planning told Brownstoner the department is aware of the application for a special permit at 315 Berry Street, and said the agency has "been coordinating with other city agencies, including the Mayor's Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, who have been overseeing coordination on critical energy projects including this one."

He said having a dispersed network of energy storage in place "is an essential prerequisite for a renewably based energy grid, which is critical to addressing the climate crisis and meeting our ambitious local emissions reduction goals, which is why we are proposing to facilitate similar ESS facilities as a part of City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality."

Existing facilities include those atop the Barclays Center and at the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport. "There have not been any safety incidents associated with these systems to date," according to the rep.

He added that if City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality is passed, "all facilities would continue to receive thorough review by our partners at DOB and FDNY, with stringent safety regulations."

"Regarding tenant challenges, zoning criteria and the Fire and Building Codes apply in all instances. If tenants feel there are violations, they are free to report them, but if an ESS facility is permitted and deemed safe, the relevant City agencies must approve it."

The DOB permits required for ESS installation, a DOB rep told Brownstoner, are for an energy storage system, an associated sprinkler system, the electrical work, and for any necessary rooftop dunnage supports and other associated work.

The rep said an application would have to comply with all the city's codes and regulations, which are "a minimum safety standard that all planned construction projects must meet in order to get an approval from the Department." All applications would also need a letter of no objection from FDNY, a rooftop structural analysis, approvals from DOB's Office of Technical Certification and Research on the energy storage system technology.

While fire code requirements are managed by FDNY, the rep said "fire mitigation plans associated with the battery system would include fire suppression protection plans, battery management system monitoring, and the construction of noncombustible material below the battery."

In regards to 315 Berry Street, the rep said the building owner started the permitting process in 2020 and the application is currently in the disapproved status, due to the zoning issues currently before BSA. OTCR's evaluation of the battery system is also on hold, the rep said, "as the applicant has not yet submitted all of the required documentation with DOB, necessary to obtain OTCR approval." However, applications for the steel rooftop dunnage and rooftop sprinkler system have both been approved by DOB. The rep added the building's current violations didn't impact the permitting process as they are to do with other sections of the building that do not affect the proposed ESS project.

If the department receives the application in full compliance with all applicable code and zoning regulations it would be approved, the rep said, adding "DOB does not have discretionary authority when it comes to reviewing and approving construction project applications."

If the project does go ahead, and so too the zoning amendments, it will likely be among the first of many residential installations the city will see in coming years, a new addition to New York City's ever-changing landscape.

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