Union Power

Pacific Gas & Electric is proposing to build two of the world’s largest batteries at Moss Landing. The empty parcel to the right of the towers is where an array of Tesla Megapack units would go.

Renewable energy is on the cusp of a major step forward with the development of utility-scale batteries, and the world is looking to Moss Landing as a proving ground.

The central obstacle to the wider adoption of wind and solar power was always reliability: wind can calm and the sky can turn cloudy. But batteries have the potential to capture energy as it’s being produced and discharge it whenever consumer demand peaks. Technological advances and the decrease in the price of certain raw materials, like lithium and vanadium, are making battery storage more affordable and practical.

In July, Tesla unveiled a battery technology called Megapack that can store enough energy to power every home in San Francisco for six hours. One of the first customers is Pacific Gas & Electric, which plans to install an array of Megapack units at its substation adjacent to the Moss Landing Power Plant.

With a capacity to discharge 182.5 megawatts of electricity at a time, the Tesla batteries would be able to provide the grid with about a third of the amount of power as an average coal plant.

The batteries will take up about 4.5 acres of space and they’ll look like rows of white metal cabinets measuring eight feet in height. Construction is scheduled to start late this year or early next year and the plant should be operational by the end of 2020.

But before that can happen, the battery project needs to go through Monterey County’s planning and permitting process. In July, the county published an analysis of what it refers to as the Elkhorn Battery Energy Storage Facility and found no significant impacts to the environment.

Members of the public were allowed to provide feedback on the findings and a group of labor unions known as California Unions for Reliable Energy chimed in to challenge the project on environmental grounds.

The county’s analysis “fails to comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act,” CURE wrote through a South San Francisco-based law firm called Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo. The union letter calls on the county to conduct a comprehensive environmental review while looking more closely at the air quality and groundwater and impacts and examining the risk of explosions and other hazards associated with lithium batteries.

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The same union group, represented by the same law firm, offered a similar critique a few years ago when the county was considering California Flats solar project in South County. The threat of a lawsuit allowed organized labor to get concessions from the developer.

“We are engaging in the public process just like anybody else,” says Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, of which CURE is a part. “If we didn’t intervene to protect the environment, no else would because they don’t have the resources.”

Meanwhile, in May the county approved an even larger battery facility for Moss Landing. It’s a 300-megawatt project of Vistra Energy, the Texas company that owns and operates the power plant.

Editor's note: Due to an error, this story previously stated that the Tesla battery project will occupy 42 acres. The proposed project's area is actually about 4.5 acres. 

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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