Warwick Village Board of Trustees district gets update on summer battery fire

Convergent says the fires in Warwick are the first fires in the company's 12-year history.

Veronica Jean Seltzer

Oct 17, 2023, 2:44 AM

Updated 186 days ago


Warwick Village Trustees received an update Monday night from Convergent, the owner/operator, of energy storage facilities in the village that caught fire over the summer.
Frank Genova, Convergent chief operating and financial officer and co-founder, spoke about two weeks ago before the school board. Monday night, he shared similar remarks with Village Trustees. He told the Trustees the events started June 26 when heat and fire alarms went off at one of the facilities located on Church Street. Only one container at that site of 28 was impacted. Genova says the next day an audible alarm sounded at a second site on school district property. Smoke damage and a high temperature were noted on one of fourteen containers. Six hours later, fire was visible and consumed seven containers over 36 hours. Genova points out the fire didn't go beyond that lineup of containers and stayed on the cement pad that hosts the containers.
The facilities are meant to help keep energy costs low and reliability high. They are a replacement for what are known as "peaker plants". Utilities have used those power plants when there's a high demand on the grid. The State of New York is challenging utilities to find replacements because "peaker plants" use fossil fuels. The battery storage facilities Convergent operates store extra energy when it's not being used and release it back into the grid when it's most needed to prevent blackouts.
Convergent says the fires in Warwick are the first fires in the company's 12-year history. It suffered a third fire in July at a project in Lyme, New York. That project does not have the same equipment that lit up in Warwick.
On Monday night, Genova said an independent root cause analysis is complete and found a product failure let water into the system. Water can cause a dangerous reaction with lithium-ion batteries, causing them to explode or light on fire. The analysis was led by a third party with data provided by Powin. It included physical inspections and data analysis. The Warwick Central Valley School District hired its own observer company Veritex and several insurance companies also took part.
Convergent doesn't manufacture the technology. A company called Powin produces it. The two sites that experienced fires are Powin's Centipede model. There's another, older model at the school district site, the Powin Stack 360. That product didn't experience any problem.
Genova apologized to the community for the disruption and uncertainty the fire caused. He thanked first responders.
He explained the sites have to be placed in specific locations dictated by the design of the Orange & Rockland system. He added the facilities have the potential to support 7,500 customers in the area.
Genova says the sites were built with safety in mind and that's why the fires didn't spread. He also reemphasized county hazmat testing showed air quality was safe during the fires.
Trustees challenged him to give an idea of how bad a fire could get. They expressed concern for people's safety when the sites are surrounded by trees and can't be put out with water. A lithium-ion battery fire has to burn itself out. Genova says what was seen in June is the worst that could happen because the system is spaced out in a way that a fire won't have access to any more combustible material outside of a concrete pad that battery containers sit on.
Genova addressed choosing Powin as the supplier. Originally, GE was the intended manufacturer. Genova says COVID-related supply chain issues prompted Convergent to choose Powin instead to keep up with the schedule set out by Orange & Rockland. Genova says Powin's system is nearly identical to GE's. He emphasized going with Powin was not a cost-cutting measure; Convergent paid more for Powin. He also said Powin was included on permits that received building inspector approval. The School Board's observer company representative and Genova agree Powin is a top-tier manufacturer.
Genova also told trustees Convergent is reviewing its emergency response plan to incorporate feedback from the Warwick Fire Department.
Trustees brought up that the fire chief didn't feel well enough trained by Convergent to handle the fire.
Genova says Convergent did an initial training with the department, but likes to do a final training once everything is installed and commissioned.
He says that final training was scheduled for the week the fires happened.
Trustee Thomas McKnight also expressed concern the emergency plan still included references to GE rather than Powin.
Genova says the Powin and GE systems are like-to-like systems and Powin was on site with Convergent, as dictated in the plan.
Genova says he knows many people want to know what the plans are for the offline storage systems. He says the company is not in a rush. Powin needs to fix its product issues and a potential solution likely won't be available until the second half of 2024.
Trustees also tried to figure out if Warwick was the first to use the Centipede system. They asked how many Centipede systems have been successfully rolled out across the globe. Genova did not know that answer since his company does not manufacture them, but he was able to say the Centipede systems in Warwicks were the first Convergent used in New York.
Trustees asked whether Convergent inquired with Powin on how many other successful deployments it had of the Centipede. Genova says that's not a question you'd typically ask a manufacturer. He added that Convergent has used Powin a long time and their track record gave them confidence in using the Centipede product.
He also emphasized the Centipede was not a pilot or beta version at the time. It was a fully commercialized product Powin is still selling.
Genova says an abstract of the root cause analysis (RCA) will be shared. Trustee Carly Foster asked if the board could get a full version and Genova said Powan owns the report, but it could be considered.
Trustees also asked about testing and governing bodies. Genova said there are no state guidelines right now for these facilities, but Powin is UL rated. UL provides standards and certifications for all sorts of products. Genova detailed Convergent had a consultant at the manufacturing facility for factory acceptance testing, but the buyers are not allowed in. They're given the results of the testing, which Powin does itself. Genova said Convergent does visual testing when the product arrives. He said Convergent will try to get more involved with testing going forward via a third-party expert.
He also explained the RCA identified the specific issue, but the next phase of the investigation is figuring out what was done incorrectly that allowed water to get in.
MORE: Warwick school district gets update on summer battery fire
Trustee Foster's questions led to another concern. Without the storage systems offline, how is Warwick protected from blackouts? Orange & Rockland representative Vincent Galligan was at the meeting. He explained the utility is working on a mobile substation that would be dispatched if the substation fails. How quickly it can be deployed depends on the situation. He says there are about a dozen really hot, humid summer days a year that could put the system at risk. He says, luckily, there were only six this summer.
Trustee Foster asked if it's O&R's position battery storage systems are a long-term solution. Galligan didn't give a simple yes or no answer but explained it's an option under consideration for several years to answer the government's challenge to come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Foster and O&R agreed the utility and trustees should have more meetings to discuss the area's grid resilience strategy.
Warwick Supervisor Michael Sweeton also asked questions. He mentioned one of the sites had alarms going off for a month prior to the fire. He asked why and whether it was related. Genova said early-stage alarms are common in the startup phase and there's no indication those alarms were connected to the fires.
He also said a follow up report will try to understand why the fire suppression system worked in the Church Street facility, but not in the school property facility.
Finally, Genova and the trustees agreed this would be the first of multiple conversations to understand how to move forward.

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