If you were trying to get in or out of Monterey County on Highway 1 on Tuesday, then you know what it’s like to be stuck in traffic.
Or if you were looking for some peace and quiet in the last days of summer, then a sudden warning to shelter in place became 12 hours of anxiety.
The cause of the shelter-in-place notice and the closure of Highway 1 was a battery fire at the PG&E battery storage facility in Moss Landing.
A Tesla Megapack was destroyed by the fire reported early Tuesday morning. Sirens at the old Moss Landing Power Station began to sound sending a warning to residents of Moss Landing as firefighters showed up to put out the blaze.
The advisory was lifted and the highway reopened later in the day after Environmental Protection Agency officials said it was safe. The cause of the fire remained unknown on Thursday and fortunately no injuries were reported.
The mega battery that caught fire is one of 256 Tesla batteries at the Elkhorn Battery Storage Facility owned by PG&E and maintained by the utility and Tesla. The PG&E plant just opened in April and, according to a utility spokesperson, the facility is capable of storing enough energy to power 275,000 homes for up to four hours, about the number of homes in the city of San Francisco, for example.
The blaze eventually burned five hours after it was first reported, but continued to smolder, raising fears the lithium-ion batteries were releasing toxins into the air. Lithium-ion battery fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish because they burn at extremely high temperatures and produce dangerous fumes.
The fire led to the shelter-in-place order for Moss Landing and surrounding areas. Highway 1 running through the area was closed, and businesses and storefronts were never allowed to open. Monterey County officials sent a message to residents: “Please close your windows and turn off your ventilation systems.”
The fire is out, but the incident raises questions about California’s power grid and the drive to move away from fossil fuels to fight climate change.
PG&E and other utilities have installed batteries on a large scale to back up renewable energy sources, to ensure electricity can still be delivered after the sun goes down.
But batteries, we learn, can have their own reliability issues. At Tuesday’s Moss Landing event, when PG&E’s massive 182.5 megawatt Tesla battery caught fire, the site had to be disconnected from the grid.
And, as news sources have reported, the PG&E facility is located next to another 400-megawatt battery storage site, which has experienced two overheating incidents in the past year that forced part of the system to shut down.
The shift to energy storage will continue, but the Moss Landing fire has also served as a reminder that battery fires are becoming more common and destructive – and safety measures, including fire drills, for residents around storage facilities will need to be put in place and widely publicized. .
For PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 amid tens of billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities related to its equipment, this is another fire and equipment risk. So add battery storage to the fire hazard – as if we didn’t already have enough wildfire hazard in our area. A fire last July at a Tesla battery storage site in Australia took three days and a hazardous materials crew to extinguish. The Aussies were lucky the fire didn’t happen during their summer when it could have been even harder to control.
Central Coast residents should also be grateful that Tuesday’s battery fire didn’t happen during the heatwave two weeks ago, when the state’s power supply was tight and PG&E fired. warned that power cuts might be necessary. For now, the PG&E facility is closed indefinitely and the utility estimates damages will exceed $50,000.
Again, the conclusion is not that utilities should stop converting from fossil fuels to renewables and battery storage, but that all energy sources, including solar and wind, have costs and risks.