Ghost Lake residents concerned about TransAlta’s energy storage system

Mike Heier, 63, rides through his private, gated community west of Calgary in a golf cart, touring the area which includes $750,000 cottages and vacant $300,000 building lots on the east end of the Ghost Lake Reservoir.

Heier stops on the embankment overlooking Ghost Lake and the Bow River. It points to a nine-acre (3.6 ha) site where TransAlta hopes to build a 180-megawatt battery energy storage system, considered the largest of its kind in the province.

The batteries will be charged by the nearby hydroelectric dam. Approximately 360 megawatt hours of electricity will be stored and then sold to the provincial grid during peak periods.

Heier, speaking on behalf of about 60 other owners of the Cottage Club project, says TransAlta chose the wrong site for the lithium-ion batteries, which have lack and caught Fire in a number of incidents around the world in recent years and have first responders injured.

Despite the company’s efforts to prevent it and its community from participating in the Alberta Utilities Commission’s (AUC) review of the project, Heier says he must speak out before the court hearing. ‘AUC on the project later this summer.

“We don’t think it’s been so well thought out. We think our community has been deprived of a voice,” he said.

Heier is also frustrated with some of the maps TransAlta filed with the AUC that do not highlight or label the Cottage Club community as a residential area.

Mike Heier says this project location map does not highlight or name the Cottage Club community, even though at least eight properties are within 400 meters of the proposed battery energy storage system. The majority of the community is within 800 meters of the site. (Submitted by Mike Heier)

Heier, who has five children and six grandchildren, worries about the risks associated with a potential fire and noxious fumes that could reach his community, which is between 350 and 800 meters from the proposed battery site.

He says reports have shown the fires are difficult to extinguish and can burn for days.

Heier says TransAlta hasn’t done a good enough job of consulting and engaging with him and his neighbors, who have raised concerns about the risks.

A collage of footage from a fire at a battery energy storage system near Melbourne, Australia in July 2021. (Twitter)

Residents also raised concerns about the aesthetics of the site, noise, light pollution, dust, traffic safety, the use of fire extinguishing chemicals and leaching into the Bow River, as well as the impact on property values.

TransAlta declined to answer specific questions from CBC News about the project.

“In the interest of fairness for all parties, we believe it is important to respect the AUC process and reserve any comment until the proceedings are complete. We look forward to participating in thorough and timely consideration of our application by the AUC and the participation of all stakeholders,” the company said in an email to CBC.

At least eight Cottage Club properties, 40 kilometers west of the Calgary city limits, are within 400 meters of a proposed battery energy storage facility. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

TransAlta instead provided links to a series of reports and documents it filed with the AUC as part of its application – topics include the project itself, community engagement, fire risk and plume and emissions analysis.

The company says it followed project notification rules set out by the AUC and consulted with dozens of people living within half a mile of the site.

TransAlta unsuccessfully attempted to block Heier and the Cottage Club from participating in the AUC hearing process, citing an individual property covenant that prevents owners from interfering with TransAlta’s operations. The AUC denied the company’s request.

“They just didn’t want to hear anything from us, and the commission cleared them up,” Heier said.

Thermal runaway less likely

TransAlta says it plans to use a type of lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery that will be least likely to go into thermal runaway — one of the main risks associated with Li-ion batteries.

Thermal runaway occurs when the battery cell reaches a state of uncontrollable self-heating, according to UL Research Institutes. Thermal runaway can result in extremely high temperatures, smoke, fire, and the ejection of gases, shrapnel, and particulates.

Water is released from the Ghost Lake Reservoir into the Bow River last week. TransAlta is proposing a 180 megawatt battery energy storage facility along the south bank of the river. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

According to air quality dispersion modeling and risk assessment commissioned by TransAlta, certain types of Li-ion batteries can fail, leading to spontaneous combustion and thermal runaway.

Fires can last for days and require tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish or cool adjacent battery cells. Some firefighters said the best way to fight fires is to let them burn, which can take days.

The report says TransAlta plans to use lithium iron phosphate batteries, which it says are less toxic than other types of Li-ion batteries. It says the two main compounds of concern in a potential fire are hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide. The company says it plans to include smoke and gas detectors in all battery modules, which it says will be no more than 200.

Harmful fumes contained on the site

The consultant concluded that emissions from a fire would exceed ambient air quality in Alberta Goals within the battery compound, but would disperse by the time they reached the Cottage Club and pose no health or safety concerns.

“All predicted air quality concentrations beyond the TransAlta property line and to the nearest residences and recreation areas are consistent with AAAQO (Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives ), says the report.

TransAlta plans to build a two-phase, 180 megawatt battery energy storage system next to the Ghost Lake reservoir. (Trans Alta)

“The IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) will not be exceeded at or above the BESS (battery energy storage system) site fence line for airborne contaminants of concern.”

“The risk of fire to the public and local residents associated with the type of battery cells proposed for this BESS is low.”

“Safety is paramount to TransAlta and is a key factor in determining battery type, battery placement and our emergency response plans,” the company said in a separate filing in December 2021.

A separate environmental assessment of the project – conducted for TransAlta – says it is not expected to have “significant adverse environmental impact” on terrain, soils, groundwater, vegetation or wildlife.

Consultations, engagement

In a filing with the AUC, TransAlta outlined its community engagement and consultation strategy. It included an initial project newsletter that was sent out in October 2021, followed by project updates in November and December.

The project leaders met with the condominium board and community residents in the fall of 2021 and held a virtual meeting attended by 10 people. About 300 owners, the majority of them in the Cottage Club, have been informed of the project. Project employees reached 62 homeowners during door-to-door visits, and nearly 400 calls and emails were sent or received by the company.

At the time, the company said COVID-19 restrictions meant it would not hold an in-person public meeting. The community invited TransAlta to an open house, but the company declined, saying it hadn’t been given enough notice.

TransAlta did not respond to a question about its attempt to block Cottage Club owners from participating in the AUC hearing.

The Cottage Club community is concerned about the battery energy storage system proposed by TransAlta immediately downstream of the reservoir. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The county approves the project without contribution

Heier says he and his neighbors are frustrated. Rocky View County exempted the project from a land use redesignation and development permit, which would have triggered a public hearing.

The county’s planning official said in a letter to TransAlta that the battery energy storage system is “ancillary infrastructure” to the hydroelectric plant, so a land use or development approval will not would not be necessary.

Mike Heier is concerned about the potential risks associated with a proposed battery energy storage system near his home. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

TransAlta called the new land designation “necessary” in its planning documents. It had also prepared a public notice for its application.

“We haven’t had any consultation in our county,” Heier said.

“So they just got it approved, and what would normally be a mail-out process where the community would be engaged because we’re so close to it, there’s absolutely no engagement.”

“I sent out a mailing for my 40 square foot office in my attic to everyone in the community,” he said.

“When it comes to a $120 million project, right on our toes, there’s nothing,” he said.

AUC audience is scheduled for three days starting August 3.

bryan Labby is a corporate reporter at CBC Calgary. If you have a great story idea or piece of advice, you can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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