City Seeks Safety Consultant for Battery Plant Project

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

September 21, 2023

On the day we remembered nearly 3,000 people who died horrible, fiery deaths in 2001 at the hands of terrorists, the City of Morro Bay started advertising for a consultant to prepare safety and emergency evacuation plans for a proposed giant battery plant.

On Sept. 11, the City Fire Department issued a request for bids for a safety consultant to work on Vistra Energy’s proposed Battery Energy Storage System or BESS project, a 600-megawatt, lithium-ion battery plant being sited on some 22 acres of the Morro Bay Power Plant property.

The RFP, issued by Fire Chief Daniel McCrain, seeks “a proposal from qualified firms, consultants, or individuals to submit written proposals to collect, analyze and manage objective data that the City of Morro Bay can use in making decisions regarding a proposed battery energy storage system, including its safety element design, emergency planning, and hazard mitigation.”

The winning bidder is expected to be paid by Vistra, which signed an agreement with the City to reimburse for all of the project’s review costs, and safety designs and emergency planning promises to be a big part of that. 

Already the City’s environmental consultant has been working on an EIR, which is expected to be released sometime around the end of this year or in early in 2024.

Chief McCrain told Estero Bay News that, “The purpose of this RFP is to have an objective, qualified consultant that can review and provide feedback on documents provided by Vistra throughout the permitting process.

“This review is specifically related to fire and life safety components of the project and is separate from the EIR but may be utilized to provide review of the EIR documents as well. 

“There will be other documents and reports that will require evaluation by the Fire Department for fire and life safety considerations as this project proceeds through the planning and approval process. Having the ability to utilize industry experts to evaluate and provide recommendations will help to ensure that this project is thoroughly vetted from a safety standpoint.”

No budget was listed in the RFP and such contracts essentially for professional services normally don’t have a budget going in, instead, the main concern is qualifications of the bidders. Chief McCrain said the costs would be dependent on the bids that come in.

“All proposals,” the RFP reads, “will be compared on the basis of understanding the scope of work to be performed, methods and procedures to be used, management, personnel and experience, and consultation and coordination with the City. Proposals are not publicly opened and shall not be disclosed.”

All proposals must be received at City Hall before 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10.

Public safety, in particular the danger of a catastrophic failure of the plant’s extensive fire suppression systems and resultant fire, is one of the main concerns of residents with regards to the BESS.

Opponents who recently qualified a voter initiative for the March 2024 ballot, cite safety as a major concern with what is being billed as the world’s largest BESS, and the closeness of the plant site to the Embarcadero, the beach and Morro Bay High School.

The Fire Chief said the RFP has a large scope of work, including: 

• Building design review related to fire and life safety systems including explosion protection systems and recommendations on safety processes or systems; 

• Recommendations for training and inspection procedures for Fire Department personnel; 

• Review of fire detection, suppression and emergency notification systems; 

• Review and provision of a peer review report/assessment of the BESS project’s safety plan study (Safety Study) to be provided by the Developer, including findings regarding the Safety Study and methods and assumptions used;

• Hazard assessment/quantitative risk analysis including thermal runaway and smoke plume modeling to provide recommendations for engineered hazard mitigation design features; 

• Provide direction to City Staff and the City Council on the creation of an emergency response plan and provide recommendations based on the emergency response capabilities of the Morro Bay Fire Department, and San Luis Obispo County mutual aid resources; 

• Attendance at meetings with City Councilmembers, City Staff, and various community meetings, including workshops, and Planning Commission / City Council meetings; and, 

• Proposer to meet with the Developer to discuss the aspects of the Project the Proposer will be considering.

Emergency evacuation planning is also expected to be a big part of the BESS Project’s public safety planning, just as it was when the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach was being reviewed, and every year since. 

That planning and preparedness will be in effect until Diablo Canyon finally closes sometime in the future.

Among the things Pacific Gas & Electric had to do was to build a building on Kansas Avenue to house the Office of Emergency Services, installation of a system of warning sirens throughout the main evacuation areas of the County, planning evacuation routes, specialized training and equipment grants, and much more.

One interesting aspect to all this, is that fighting a battery plant fire requires using firefighting chemical foams instead of water, which lithium reacts badly with. TV ads placed by injury law firms and running now on many channels, call for firefighters who developed cancer after using these foam products — at places like airports — to join class action lawsuits against the chemical companies.

The BESS, which Vistra initially estimated to cost $490 million, is expected to have a lifespan of about 20 years.

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