Power Down

Vistra asked firefighters to remain on standby at their Moss Landing facility while the company worked to ensure the situation was safe. That took six days.

When North County Fire District Chief Joel Mendoza received the call around 8pm on Saturday, Sept. 4 about a structure fire inside the Vistra Energy lithium-ion battery storage facility in Moss Landing, he felt a momentary sense of dread.

“When you’re talking about a fire at the largest battery storage facility in the world, you can’t help but think this could be the big one,” Mendoza says. He immediately remembered the 2019 incident in Arizona when a 2-megawatt lithium-ion battery storage facility caught fire and exploded, hospitalizing eight firefighters. Mendoza’s team was responding to a 300-megawatt facility, but he says he drew confidence from knowing his team was well trained for such an incident at Vistra.

Mendoza’s team found no fire, just smoke and drenched batteries from the facility’s fire suppression system. Vistra asked the firefighters to remain on standby, which they did for six days.

Now, only nine months into operation and less than three weeks after Vistra cut the ribbon on an expansion, most of the largest battery storage facility in the world has gone dormant with no timeline for a return. An investigation is underway and details remain vague. Although the company has maintained its intention is to reopen the facility, they have made no guarantees.

“We are confident it is a matter of when, not if, the facility returns to service. However, speed is not our goal here – safety is,” says Meranda Cohn, spokesperson for Texas-based Vistra. “We expect not only to repair the facility and bring it back into operation but also to improve it so this does not reoccur.”

Vistra’s Moss Landing plant houses two battery storage facilities. The incident occurred at the 300-megawatt facility, which opened in December 2020. The separate, 100-megawatt battery storage facility that opened Aug. 19 was unharmed and remains in operation.

Battery storage is one of the largest question marks in the global push toward a carbon-free and renewable energy future. Oil and gas can be captured and stored in physical barrels over long periods of time for future use. If solar and wind power are to be used at nighttime or during windless days, the energy has to be stored in batteries.

Utility-scale batteries, such as the plant in Moss Landing, are crucial for a reliable clean energy grid. However, it is a still-nascent technology and lithium-ion batteries, especially those developed by LG – which are used at the Vistra plant – have had issues.

Between 2017 and 2019, 23 energy storage system fires in South Korea were linked to flaws in lithium-ion batteries. A 2019 report prompted by the country’s Ministry of Industry highlighted a suite of battery-related causes for the fires, which included proximity to coastal areas, human error during installation and a ramping up the battery use to full force too quickly. On May 25, LG announced a recall of all lithium-ion batteries produced between April 2017 and September 2018 due to fire risks. Additionally, General Motors has had to issue a massive recall of its Chevy Bolt because of the fire risks presented by its LG lithium-ion batteries.

Cohn says the batteries at issue were not the same as those recalled by LG. She says an analysis is underway of each of the 100,000 battery modules in the facility.

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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