Smoke Alarmed

After an emergency response due to smoke on Sept. 4, Vistra Energy asked the local fire district to stay on the scene until conditions were deemed safe. That took six days. (What looks like smoke coming out of the building is actually a tree branch in the foreground.)

The largest battery storage facility in the world, Vistra Energy’s Moss Landing plant, remains mostly dormant five months after emergency responders were called over reports of smoke and fears that some of the plant’s lithium-ion batteries had overheated.

On Jan. 21, Vistra Energy announced that lithium-ion batteries within the site’s larger of two battery storage plants were not to blame, which was widely speculated as lithium-ion batteries have had a rocky arc as electricity storage innovation has risen to priority in the tech and energy industries. Rather, in its published findings, Vistra blamed a sensitive fire suppression system that was triggered by smoke not related to overheating batteries, yet still submerged some batteries with water.

“Due to an apparent programming error in the [smoke detector system], these actions occurred at detected smoke levels below the specified design level at which water was intended to be released,” the findings report reads.

The report guesses that the smoke came from a nearby air handling unit that experienced a failed bearing around the same time the smoke was detected. Roughly 7,000 out of about 100,000 battery modules were damaged in the event. Meranda Cohn, spokesperson for Vistra Energy, says the facility is expected to come back online “soon” but provided no specific timetable.

Cohn says Vistra and PG&E reached an agreement, announced Jan. 24, to expand the plant, adding another 350 megawatts to the existing 400-megawatt facility. Vistra CEO Curt Morgan said in a statement the Moss Landing site could eventually expand to 1,500 megawatts, enough to power over 1 million homes.

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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