Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Environment

Proposed Seguro battery storage project faces new obstacle

The Otay Mesa battery storage fire was fully extinguished last week, but the fallout continues. Some residents in North County say the fire highlights their concerns about a proposed battery storage facility in their neighborhood. KPBS North County reporter Alexander Nguyen talks to an expert about those concerns and how a recent news development could derail the project.

Palomar Health announced this week that it would not approve an easement for the Seguro Battery Storage Project, adding to the challenges in the development of the site.

The recent, weeks-long Otay Mesa battery storage fire highlighted the concerns that neighbors in unincorporated Eden Valley have about the proposed battery storage facility in their neighborhood, and a former energy executive agrees with them.

Joe Rowley, a former vice president of project development at Sempra US Gas and Power, said the proposed Seguro battery storage project is a prime example of where a battery facility should not be located.

Advertisement

“It should not be near residences. It should not be near a hospital or schools,” he said.

The retired Escondido resident has 24 years of experience developing large-scale energy facilities for Sempra, including battery storage. He's also part of a group called Stop Seguro that's campaigning to halt the plans for development of the facility. Rowley said large-scale energy storage facilities should be in an industrial area.

An undated rendering of the proposed Seguro Battery Storage project.
Courtesy of AES
An undated rendering of the proposed Seguro Battery Storage project.

The proposed Seguro project is 22.5 acres at the site of a former horse ranch in Eden Valley, near Palomar Medical Center Escondido.

“The larger the facility, the more likely fires will occur and the more frequently fires will occur," Rowley said. "So to put a facility like this just a quarter of a mile directly upwind of a major medical facility and right next to residences on all four sides is just really a bad idea.”

The Gateway Energy Storage facility site in Otay Mesa, which caught on fire on May 15, is only 4 acres. That fire took roughly two weeks to extinguish fully.

Advertisement

Global energy company AES, the owner of the Seguro project, said it implemented lessons learned from previous battery storage fires in its four-step fire mitigation plan. This plan includes a fire suppression system within each battery module to isolate fires. (Each module is roughly the size of a DVD player.) There are also smoke, heat and gas detectors.

Battery cells typically heat up and off-gas hydrogen before catching fire. Rowley said these are not your typical fires.

“When batteries burn, they emit hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide,” he said.

When hydrogen fluoride comes in contact with water, it forms hydrofluoric acid, which Rowley said is one of the strongest acids known.

During the Gateway fire, Donovan Correctional Facility, roughly 2 miles away, was issued evacuation warnings and a shelter-in-place order due to toxic fumes concerns.

That’s part of why Eden Valley residents oppose the project, as evidenced by multiple signs lining Country Club Drive near the proposed site.

A sign at the main entrance to Palomar Health Medical Center Escondido, June 5, 2024.
Alexander Nguyen
/
KPBS
A sign at the main entrance to Palomar Health Medical Center Escondido, June 5, 2024.

It’s also part of the reason why Palomar Health is against it. The hospital district sent a letter to San Diego County Planning & Development Services on April 26, outlining its concerns, including air-quality impact, emergency response and evacuation impacts.

Palomar Health Board of Directors Chair Jeff Griffith also released a statement in early May expressing his concerns.

“We are on the windward side of it," he said. "So prevailing winds most likely would carry any toxic smoke byproducts right into our campus. We didn't think it was good to put the community at risk and definitely not to put our patients at risk.”

The 332-bed Palomar Medical Center Escondido is roughly 1,600 from the site. That's why the district announced that it would not approve an easement for the project.

The Seguro project would need to get an easement from Palomar Health to connect to the nearby San Diego Gas & Electric substation. The easiest way is to go through part of Palomar’s property.

A San Diego Gas & Electric transmission tower with Palomar Medical Center Escondido in the background, June 4, 2024.
Alexander Nguyen
/
KPBS
A San Diego Gas & Electric transmission tower with Palomar Medical Center Escondido in the background, June 4, 2024.

In a statement to KPBS, Corinne Lytle Bonine, AES permitting director for the Seguro project, said the company is evaluating all viable options.

“We are eager to continue our efforts to work with community members and stakeholders as we advance the design and permitting for this important project, which will contribute to the decarbonization goals of the County of San Diego and State of California while bringing additional benefits to the community,” she said in the statement.

AES said the site is a good location to serve the community's energy needs. It’s near the SDG&E Escondido substation and can directly feed into it without installing long overhead transmission lines. The site also has enough energy storage to power 240,000 homes for four hours.

Rowley said projects like this one are need to combat climate change and to provide clean energy, but their locations need to be well thought out.

"A very, very small project, say 1 or 2 MW, could potentially be located in a residential area, but this project is 300 times bigger than that," he said. "So it is just to site this project at this location, I think, is an extreme act of hubris and should not be considered."

Rowley doesn't think this setback will deter AES from pursuing the project because setbacks are common in the early stages.

The North County Focus newsletter is your bi-weekly guide to all the news coming from North County, plus a handpicked selection of events and trivia tidbits.