The lithium-ion batteries that have caused hundreds of e-bike fires around the city are also an essential piece in New York’s climate resiliency plan — and that has some residents who live near proposed energy storage sites raising alarms. 

But experts told THE CITY there’s no cause for panic.

In the Staten Island neighborhood of Bulls Head, for example, some residents recently worried about a battery energy storage project slated for a church parking lot. They feared the project could harm nearby schoolchildren, citing the risk of fire from the new technology. 

In response, Borough President Vito Fossella asked the Adams administration for a moratorium on siting storage projects near residential and retail areas. The developer ended up withdrawing the plans.

In Williamsburg, tenants of a loft building have since 2021 decried plans to site a storage project on the roof, worrying about possible fire risks.

But engineers, first responders and energy storage developers emphasized the fundamental differences between the lithium-ion batteries used in e-bikes and those in the projects that support the grid. The batteries used in storage systems must be made to specifications by UL Standards & Engagement, the product testing and safety company — and pass the FDNY’s muster.

New York City also has some of the strictest rules in the country governing how battery energy storage can be developed and where it can be placed.

And to mitigate any chance of fire risk, the FDNY requires battery manufacturers and developers to run through a gauntlet of tests and adhere to stringent standards before any projects in the city gain approval. 

“In terms of installing energy storage systems, which are stationary and large, the city, the Fire Department and Con Edison have taken a very responsible engineering and safety approach. It’s my view they’re doing that in the most logical way possible,” said Valerio De Angelis, a chemical engineer working on batteries at Sandia National Laboratories and previously the executive director of the CUNY Energy Institute.

Lofty Goals

Energy storage is an essential element of New York’s mandate to transition away from fossil fuels and towards a zero-emissions electric grid by 2040. 

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According to the state climate law, renewables like wind and solar must produce 70% of electricity by 2030. But such projects generate power intermittently. That’s where batteries come in. They store energy, so when there’s greater demand, they discharge energy back to the grid, making the whole system more reliable and resilient.

On a small scale, that’s already happening. Con Ed’s two-megawatt storage system in Ozone Park, Queens, for example, has provided electricity to local residents during heat waves, according to the company.

The New York Power Authority and environmental justice groups known as the PEAK Coalition see promise in batteries to avoid firing dirty gas-powered peaker plants during times of high energy demand.

New York state has a goal of six gigawatts of storage capacity by 2030. That’s enough to power about 1.2 million homes and double what’s required under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. 

But so far, just 278 megawatts of storage have been installed across the state, with 12 megawatts operational in New York City, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

If You Can Make It Here…

New York City’s rigorous battery energy storage safety requirements, set by FDNY, lead the way for other jurisdictions in the nation, multiple experts said. 

“I’m not saying that [the storage systems] will never fail because it would be impossible to say something like that, but what they do have is many layers of protection to prevent these things from failing,” said Paul Rogers, a former FDNY lieutenant and founder of the Energy Safety Response Group, which consults with energy storage developers on safety and compliance. 

Rogers, who nearly a decade ago helped write the initial code regulating battery energy storage in New York City, referred to lithium-ion batteries as “Goldilocks batteries,” a nod to the maintenance and operations needed for “just right” conditions that ensure the batteries operate securely. 

When those conditions aren’t met, fires can happen. 

That’s been the case in the vast majority of the 24 battery-related fires that have occurred just this year, which according to the FDNY stemmed from improper charging or maintenance of e-bike batteries.

In addition to requiring UL specifications in manufacturing, the FDNY also sets guidelines for the storage systems’ installation, requiring both the location and the technology to be approved.

“Even if a system has all of the certifications from UL and all the testing agencies, you can’t just install it in New York City — but if you’ve passed New York City guidelines, you should be able to install it anywhere in the world,” said Adam Cohen, co-founder and chief technology officer at NineDot Energy, a company that’s developing energy storage projects around the city. 

“The city has laid out a good vision for doing this, even if it’s fairly complex.”

Local law requires the batteries in the storage projects to be contained. The projects must be outfitted with a fire suppression system, gas and fire detection systems, a ventilation system, manual exhaust system, around-the-clock remote monitoring and a mechanism to stop the electrical current from flowing in the event of an emergency. 

The system must be inspected at least once a year. And it must be close to a water supply so FDNY can easily access it, as well as at least 10 feet away from public streets and overhead power lines. The manufacturer, property owner or installer must create an emergency management plan, too.

Once the battery energy storage project is installed, it doesn’t move — unlike the lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes, laptops and other everyday items — which further reduces the risk of malfunctions.

A Battery of Batteries

Energy storage systems will need to proliferate around the city in order to bolster the electric grid, as the benefits are local. But between zoning restrictions and  the competition for space in the city, there’s a limit to where those storage projects can go.

For now, storage systems that support the grid are only allowed in areas zoned for manufacturing, for the most part. Some are allowed within commercial districts.

The Department of City Planning is developing a set of regulations to codify where storage systems can be installed with the aim of expanding availability. It’s part of Mayor Eric Adams’ City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality initiative (first announced as Zoning for Zero Carbon).

The zoning proposal is expected to go to the Planning Commission in the spring, according to DCP, and would need to go through a public review process.

“Lithium-ion and other battery chemistries have been the things that have allowed us to evolve how we communicate, and how we write. It’s only natural that the next step in the evolution of this technology is to power how we move around and how our grid works,” said Clint Plummer, CEO of Rise Light & Power, which owns the Ravenswood Generating Station in Astoria, the site of a proposed storage project. 

“For the sake of the local environment, the air that we breathe, and for the sake of the global climate, that’s an important transition to embrace.”