NYC quietly moves to let giant batteries be installed on roofs


One city agency now stands between a private company and its plan to build a colossal lithium ion power bank on top of a Brooklyn building. If approved, the project would mark the first time such a substation is permitted to be built on the roof of a residential building anywhere in the boroughs, the US, and quite possibly the world.

But that doesn’t mean building residents are happy about it. 

MicroGrid Networks, the for-profit company behind the plan, says viable locations for the battery storage — which is heralded as the future of green energy — are extremely limited, and building on top of New Yorkers’ homes is necessary if the city is to meet its climate goals. The tenants of the Williamsburg apartment property that the hefty 18-battery bank is set to top say they fear for their own safety due to lithium ion explosion risks, as well as that of the building — specifically, if its structure can actually support multiple tons above them. 

Since 2020, MicroGrid has been working to put 2.5 megawatts of energy storage on top of 315 Berry St., a seven-story loft building three blocks from Domino Park and the East River. Similar battery banks — which recharge at night, then sell energy to ConEd during heat waves and other times of peak grid use — are currently installed on the roofs of the Barclays Center and JFK Airport’s TWA Hotel, as well as behind a shopping mall and housing project in East New York. They are essential to meet pols’ renewable energy goals for New York City and to relieve aging infrastructure, but in a city notoriously tight on real estate, private companies are struggling to find landlords willing to host their batteries. And residential building roofs are currently entirely off limits — for now. 

For two years, residents of 315 Berry St. have fought tooth and nail not to become the first apartment building to sport the cutting-edge tech on its roof. They feel they are losing, however, and suspect they will soon become a “guinea pig,” setting a precedent that will open the floodgates for similar batteries to be built on other residential rooftops. 

315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
A slide of 315 Berry’s rooftop from a MicroGrid presentation.
MicroGrid Networks
315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
An entrance to 315 Berry’s roof.
Courtesy 315 Berry Street tenants

“It’s more scary than frustrating — the prospect of living with 400,000 pounds of batteries over your head that might catch on fire or explode at any moment,” Olivia Silver, 25, who has lived at 315 Berry her entire life, told The Post. (MicroGrid estimated the equipment will weigh closer to 300,000 pounds.)

“I’m scared for me and my home and my building and in addition, I’m scared for the city,” said Paige Stevenson, who moved into the building in 1989. “I feel our tenants group is the last defense against this really scary new precedent of incorporating these into residential spaces. The tech is not safe,” Stevenson claimed.

The tenants group has discussed hiring a structural engineer or a lawyer to help them fight the situation, but lacks the funds or resources. They are astonished that the FDNY has signed off on it, considering the rash of recent e-bike and Tesla battery fires, when MicroGrid’s lithium ion phosphate batteries are similar, an order of magnitude larger. (The company wrote in a presentation that “these batteries, unlike other Lithium batteries, do not catch fire,” but other lithium ion phosphate batteries have been involved in at least one recent fatal explosion.) Building residents also note that their 49-unit, early 20th-century building is in no shape to carry more weight on its roof, as it is covered in cracks, floods frequently, has over 25 open violations and a partial vacate order from when a chunk of the facade fell into the now-closed community garden below.

315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
A slide promoting the safety of the batteries MicroGrid wants to install.
MicroGrid Networks
315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
A flood in the building — a frequent occurence, residents told The Post.
Courtesy 315 Berry Street tenants
315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
The building is not in good condition, according to longtime tenants.
Courtesy 315 Berry Street tenants

In response to The Post’s request for comment, an FDNY representative explained that their approval of MicroGrid’s roof install plan was based partially on the dearth of ground-level battery install locations.

“It is the Department’s understanding that this large installation will provide energy to the utility grid and that it has been placed on a building rooftop because of the scarcity of available ground locations in the community,” the FDNY told The Post.

The building’s landlord, Richard Herbst, told The Post that when MicroGrid initially presented the plan to him saying yes “was a no-brainer.” He noted that, “although lithium-ion batteries have been in the news lately for causing fires,” his understanding is that MicroGrid’s batteries are different and “much safer.” 

315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
A tenant stands in a stairwell with visible damage.
Courtesy 315 Berry Street tenants
315 berry street microgrid lithium battery
Sun shines through a crack in the building.
Courtesy 315 Berry Street tenants

Tim Dumbleton, the chief operating officer of MicroGrid — which has a pipeline of storage install projects in the works, albeit not on residential roofs — emphasized that the “technical and safety issues of the project have been looked at extensively by many agencies,” and disagreed with the tenants’ claims about the company and its batteries. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for this city to meet its mandates without residential installations,” he told The Post, adding “Without [enough] energy storage you would have to roll back the city’s electrification program, the plan for offshore wind, and upstate solar also won’t work. The city will be left with old gas and oil [infrastructure] for the foreseeable future.”

“This is something that has a very clear way to be permitted in New York City and and the [Department of Buildings] and the fire department have reviewed the installation and concluded that it’s safe,” said Rebecca Bar, MicroGrid’s director of project management. 

The Board of Standards and Appeals is scheduled to next review the matter in early January. There will be an opportunity for public comment before they decide if New York City’s electric future should be powered from the roofs of its homes or somewhere, anywhere else.



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