dave gabbard pacific gas and electric
Dave Gabbard of Pacific Gas & Electric talks Sept. 20 in Castroville about fires that broke out at the Moss Landing Lithium Ion Battery Energy Storage System a year ago. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Monterey County officials hosted a town hall meeting Sept. 20 to allow residents to get information and share concerns about three fires at the Moss Landing Lithium Ion Battery Energy Storage System.

The two-hour meeting in Castroville included Monterey County Supervisor Glenn Church, Senator John Laird, the Monterey County Administrative Office, North Monterey County Fire Protection, Pacific Gas and Electric and Vistra Energy Corporation. 

Vistra Energy Corporation and PG&E, who have storage systems at Moss Landing, both responded to the incidents, which they described as a learning experience.

The fires broke out shortly after the facilities opened at the Vistra location on Sept. 4, 2021 and Feb 14, 2022. Another fire erupted Sept. 20, 2022 at the PG&E station, which sent up a plume of smoke and led to the closure of Highway 1 in both directions in that area for around 12 hours. 

“It’s not just environmental—there’s health issues,” Church said, highlighting not only the fire but the plume of smoke that emanated from the facility, resulting in a “shelter in place” advisory to surrounding residents and businesses. “That fire resulted in smoke containing a toxin being released that was harmful to neighboring areas.”

Cynthia Vodopivec of Vistra, a Fortune 500 company that has facilities in 20 states, spoke of protections that are already in place.

“We know that there are inherent but manageable risks in all forms of generation, transportation and storage of energy,” she said. 

She explained how the Moss Landing facility has 1,000 megawatts of natural gas power and 715 megawatts from battery storage.

Brad Masek, also of Vistra, spoke of a built-in safety system of prevention, detection (monitoring equipment) and mitigation (emergency battery shutdown, ventilation and more). He assured the audience that after the incidents at the facility last year, all battery systems were analyzed and repaired. 

Concerns were voiced in a Q&A session about hazardous fallout, transporting batteries to and from the site, dangerous materials possibly reaching the Monterey Bay, and emergency response networking. 

North Monterey County Fire Chief Joel Mendoza told the audience that Vistra and PG&E have done “a great job in training with their local fire department.” 

“We’re a small company and we don’t have the resources to deal with something of this scale,” he said. “We have had the training. We can do much better than what we are doing. But we sat down with each one of the companies and have gone over each one of the incidents to overall help public safety.” 

Dave Gabbard of PG&E told the crowd that an investigation revealed that the fires resulted from a vent shield on the top of a unit that had been incorrectly installed, which was a human error in the installation phase of the system.

“Part of the vent shield was installed on the roof of the deck, dislocated and created a point of egress for water,” Gabbard said. “The rainwater that entered the system led to overheating.”

Tesla’s Megapack facility in Moss Landing was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018. Made up of 256 Megapacks, the system would be capable of powering an estimated 136,500 homes for several hours during high-demand periods. 

Officials explained that PG&E built the plant in 1948, and because it was initially approved as an energy plant by the Planning Commision, it falls within the land use policy plan and the Moss Landing Community Plan that approves manageable risks. The area was zoned in the late 1940s for “heavy industry and coastal dependency” as it is today.

Laird said he supports battery pack storage but emphasized the need for safety and emergency action plans as showcased in Senate Bill 38 that he introduced. The bill, which would require battery storage facilities to have an emergency response plan, passed unanimously and awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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