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A recent battery storage fire sparks Morro Bay residents' concerns about energy plant plans

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Since a battery storage facility in Moss Landing caught fire in September, some Morro Bay residents have lambasted plans to put something similar in place of the city's iconic smokestacks.

"People were paying attention to the news [of the Moss Landing fire] and saying to the city of Morro Bay, 'Hey, I don't think this project is going to work for us,'" area resident Aaron Ochs said. "The project is in a key economic zone, which is the Embarcadero, which is sort of our bread-and-butter area for tourism."

Judy Lynn Setting, who lives in Morro Bay, said she was worried about the environmental impacts that the proposed lithium-ion storage facility could have.

"We do not believe in the placement of this lithium-ion [battery energy storage system]. These systems are relatively new, and toxins emitted during meltdowns are dangerous enough to require shutdown orders for schools and neighborhoods," Setting wrote to the New Times in an email. "This recently happened in Moss Landing. Due to wind direction, my nephew's school was in lockdown for five hours. Highway 1 was detoured."

The storage facility—proposed by Texas-based energy company Vistra for the 24-acre site of the old Morro Bay Power Plant—is still in the early planning stages. The battery storage facility would be located where a fuel storage tank formerly resided.

REPLACING THE STACKS A new lithium-ion battery plant could take the place of Morro Bay's signature smokestacks. - PHOTO BY CAMILLA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camilla Lanham
  • REPLACING THE STACKS A new lithium-ion battery plant could take the place of Morro Bay's signature smokestacks.

According to a previous agreement with the city, the company has until 2027 to tear down the smokestacks for potential redevelopment. If Vistra fails to remove the power plant stacks, City Manager Scott Collins said the company will owe the city $3 million.

"As it stands right now, there's a project under review by city staff. We are going through the environmental review, and also a master plan process for the power plant site itself, kind of what would come next after the plant is torn down," Collins said.

The project still needs to go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process before the City Council makes any decisions. According to Vistra, CEQA will determine any environmental or archeological impacts the project might have. Currently, it's projected that the Morro Bay City Council and Planning Commission will review the project by the middle of next year. Once that review is completed, the proposal would also need approval from state agencies, such as the California Coastal Commission.

Impacts on the environment and the economy aren't the only concerns that city residents have expressed. An anonymous letter sent to New Times claimed that the power plant site is a Chumash burial ground.

"Important cultural sites including burials are found in numerous locations in San Luis Obispo County including throughout Morro Bay. Wherever these cultural sites are located, they should be avoided as once they're gone, they're gone forever," said Mona Tucker, chair of the yak tityu tityu yak tihini Northern Chumash Tribe.

A spokesperson for Vistra said that the company has been in contact with local indigenous tribes throughout the CEQA process and will ask tribal representatives to provide comments for the environmental impact report.

Collins indicated that a storage facility like Vistra's could be crucial in sustaining the electrical grid once Diablo Canyon Power Plant shuts down.

"The whole point of a battery system is that green energy is typically generated at the time of day when energy is least needed," Collins said. "Batteries serve a purpose of holding that energy that's generated in kind of the peak part of the day and then sending it out back onto the grid when people are using electricity the most."

State Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) said that battery storage got the state through early September's severe heatwave.

"At certain hours of the day, battery storage provides 2 1/2 times what Diablo does to the grid," Laird said. "It was battery storage that got us through that. If it wasn't for battery storage, the grid would have gone down."

Collins said that Vistra was looking into implementing fire suppression systems after the Moss Landing fire, but due to the project being in the early stages of development, nothing has been decided yet.

Still, residents such as Ochs have expressed concern that the project is being fast-tracked without residents' input.

"When it comes to large-scale infrastructure projects in the state, when it comes to planning and building codes, especially in Morro Bay, we're supposed to get a postcard in the mail that informs us of hearings where people can express their views or concerns about that project or the project applicant," Ochs said. "And a lot of people didn't get that."

Collins said the city is doing its due diligence to ensure that residents' concerns are being heard and addressed. The city has done some public outreach, such as a Sept. 14 community workshop, and plans on doing more in the future. Collins added that the city is also considering negotiations with Vistra that could result in benefits for the community.

"I think there's a concern that this is being fast-tracked or something, and that's not how we do business here," Collins said. "Vistra came to our town in 2018. It's 2022. So nothing is moving quickly here. So we want to make sure that if something moves forward, it's something we can put our names on, that is safe for our community." Δ

Contact Staff Writer Shwetha Sundarrajan at [email protected].

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