An issue has manifested in northwest Upland that carries with it the potential of dividing the community in the City of Gracious Living.
There are multiple elements to what is occurring. One of those is the emphasis by the State of California on society making a conversion from its dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Another factor is northeast Upland’s show of tangible process toward achieving that conversion. Also at play is Upland’s adherence to the political division imposed on it by an outside attorney who forced it into ward system voting starting with the 2018 election cycle. Another is the social-economic division between the city’s north and south sides and the short shrift historically accorded to the south side. Playing a part is the strong emphasis city officials have been making on what they consider to be economic development.
Afoot is an effort by GridStor, in conjunction with Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC, to complete the 120-megawatt Upland Reliability Project in the Sycamore Hills district in North Upland.
GridStor is a Portland, Oregon-based company focusing exclusively on large-scale, standalone battery energy storage projects.
In September 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown’s put his signature onto Senate Bill 100, which was passed by both houses of California’s legislature the previous month. That legislation required California to meet 50 percent of its energy needs with clean power by 2025 and 60 percent by 2030 before reaching the goal of 100 percent of the state’s energy coming from renewable, non-fossil fuel sources by 2045. In May 2023, despite the state not being anywhere near on track to meet those goals, Governor Gavin Newsom renewed the commitment for the state to reach the 100 percent carbon-free energy threshold by 2045.
Standalone battery energy storage projects are intended to play a central role in assisting the State of California in meeting, if not the ultimate goal of becoming 100 percent reliant upon renewable energy, then progressing toward that ideal. What large scale energy storage facilities are intended to do is serve as a repository for the energy being produced by day by solar power – in all of its forms from single roofs covered with panels to medium-sized solar farms using hundreds of solar panels to industrial-size solar plants utilizing thousands of photovoltaic panels or solar-to-thermal energy conversion plants in which concentrated heat from the sun is used to convert water to steam to run turbines producing electricity by the megawatt. Battery stored energy, produced during times of peak solar energy generation, can enhance the reliability of California’s electrical grid. During periods of peak energy demand, the batteries can be discharged directly into the grid to prevent brownouts, rolling blackouts or outright blackouts. Alternatively, at night, late at night when the electricity demand has dropped because air conditioners and household appliances are dormant and most nighttime lights have been turned off or severely dimmed as the vast number of people are asleep and fossil fuel power plants are passive or sidelined, the energy from those batteries can be loaded onto the state power grid.
In June 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission issued an order directing load-serving entities like Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric to procure additional energy sources. A number of companies, including GridStor, are moving to create the temporary energy storage capacity that will allow the state mandates and the Public Utilities Commission orders to be met.
With technical progress, however, come challenges. Those challenges include hazards from battery storage facilities.
Illustrations of that hazard occurred in two separate incidents in Arizona, one on April 19, 2019 in Surprise and another three years and two days later in Chandler on April 21, 2022. The battery systems involved in those mishaps are similar in design but on the order of about one-tenth the size of what is planned for Upland. The failures with both resulted in explosions and fires of near-catastrophic proportion.
The battery system in Surprise that exploded in 2019 was storing energy for Arizona Public Service Company, and exploded when it was smoldering and fire crews opened a door to ventilate the facility.
The facility in Chandler had been constructed beginning in 2018 and held electricity in reserve for the Arizona Power Grid, with a capacity to store four hours of electricity with an output of 10 megawatts of power, enough to power 2,500 homes.
Safety issues with the current design of standalone battery energy storage facilities are manifold. The three primary concerns are explosiveness, excessive heat resulting in fire and consequent soil and groundwater contamination that can occur when the ingredients of the lithium-ion batteries used in such power vaults pour out and onto the concrete floors and either migrate through the concrete or wash out of the facilities and onto bare land or ground when they are propelled by massive amounts of water used to douse fires.
In Upland, the GridStor 120-megawatt Upland Reliability Project to be located on the property tied up by Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC in the Sycamore Hills district is on a trajectory to be considered and rubberstamped by the Upland City Council without a hitch.
A problem, however, is that many homeowners in that neck of the woods – stretching from San Antonio Heights in the unincorporated area north of Upland, down through the neighborhoods in Upland below 24th Street, which is the demarcation between the county and Upland, and further south through many of Upland’s grandest and most established neighborhoods and ultimately into the still-upscale but newer and not-yet-fully-completed Sycamore Hills District just north of 16th Street and east of Benson Avenue – have had difficulty getting, or in many cases cannot purchase at any price, fire insurance. The entirety of that area which is not part of San Antonio Heights lies in Upland’s First District. The prospect that the Upland Reliability Project, one that is to consist of batteries that are demonstrably prone to explosions and fire, which are at the same time something on the order of ten times the size of the batteries that exploded and caught fire in Surprise, Arizona and Chandler, Arizona, has alarmed those residents. In particular, those who have no fire insurance and no prospect of getting it, are concerned that if a disaster hits and their residences burn to the ground, they will be left homeless and without any recompense for the million-dollar homes they will have lost.
The residents of Upland’s Sycamore Hills District, closest to the proposed project, find themselves in a particularly bad way.
Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC, a Delaware Corporation, exists for one reason and one reason only, which is to ensure that land for the location of the Upland Reliability Project is secured. Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC has settled on that location being in the Sycamore Hills District. Situated in Upland’s 1st District, Sycamore Hills, pursuant to a decision made by the Upland City Council as it was then composed in 2016, has only a single representative on the city council other than the mayor, who is elected at large to represent everyone in the city and all of its districts. In 2016, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, using provisions of the California Voting Rights Act that would pay him $45,000 for alleging racially polarized voting had occurred in Upland historically, threatened the city with a lawsuit if it did not switch from at-large elections for its council members to electing them by district. The city, in response, responded by agreeing to go to a ward representation and electoral system and paying Shenkman the $45,000, at which point he went away. The city created the four wards using the relatively straight formula of bifurcating the city north and south generally along Foothill Boulevard and then bifurcating each of those north and south halves east and west, generally, with a few deviations, along San Antonio Avenue. Thus, the city has come to exist and be divided into the northwest quadrant 1st District, the northeast quadrant 2nd District, the southwest quadrant 3rd District and the southeast quadrant 4th District.
Traditionally, the area of Upland above Foothill Boulevard – Historic Route 66 – has been the most affluent section of the city, indeed, one of the more upper-scale districts in the entirety of San Bernardino County, consisting primarily of residential neighborhoods involving, for the most part, high quality homes built, in most cases, on quarter-acre or larger lots. The commercial areas of north Upland confine themselves, generally, to the northwest corner of 16th Street and the mercantile district along Campus Avenue near the 210 Freeway at the city’s northeasternmost extension. That portion of the city below Foothill Boulevard is a mixture of commercial and industrial uses intermixed with residential sections that are decidedly less impressive than the resplendent homes, estates, mansions and occasional manors to the north. The neighborhoods on the south side of the city in many spots involve apartments and in others densely-packed, compact abodes on much smaller or minuscule lots, in some cases teeming with denizens of Upland’s underbelly yearning to be free of the poverty that envelopes them. Many of those in the less comfortable circumstance below Foothill have come to envy, resent and despise the more fortunate Uplanders who live further upland, closer to the mountains.
Earlier this year, controversy broke out when the Tesla dealership that has been established in Upland’s 2nd District at 1018 East 20th Street, just west of the confluence of the 210 Freeway and Campus Avenue along the northern periphery of the Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivision, with the collusion of city officials and without any public disclosure entered into a silent lease agreement with the city for 2.07 acres of city-owned property in the Sycamore Hills District, where it began constructing an open-air parking storage lot for its vehicles. The land in question, comprising a 300-foot by 300-foot square approximately 80 feet east of Park View Promenade and set back from the residential dwellings to the south by approximately 145 feet and within the vicinity of other residential dwellings to the west, was zoned as open space. To many Sycamore Hills residents, the unannounced parking lot project which had not yet been given formal official approval by the city seemed to involve city officials in what appeared to be a bootleg operation. This, they feared, presaged the transformation of the open area around their homes into a semi-industrialized/semi-commercialized zone, which they considered to be incompatible with their neighborhood. The contretemps that ensued resulted in the city cancelling the lease with Tesla and making arrangement with the company to lease acreage at its corporate yard to store the cars.
Now, with the land in the Sycamore Hills area being considered as the site of the Upland Reliability Project, nearby residents sounding objections to that proposal and their representative on the Upland City Council, First District Councilwoman Shannan Maust, find themselves isolated.
Second District residents are doing their part in the effort to make a conversion from reliance on fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy by hosting the Tesla dealership. Residents in the Sycamore Hills District, specifically, and the First District more generally rejected the Tesla dealership’s parking lot and are now turning their noses up at the Upland Reliability Project. Residents of the 3rd and 4th districts for generations have put up with factories and foundries and other industrial uses proximate to their homes. Many of those are asking why 2nd District Councilman James Breitling and Third District Councilman Carlos Garcia and 4th District Councilman Rudy Zuniga should assist Maust in trying to protect Sycamore Hills residents from what they say will be an onerous land use when the residents of the 3rd District and the 4th District are not being afforded any such protection.
Mayor Bill Velto, it so happens, is a resident of the 1st District. Whether, however, he is inclined to come to the assistance of the residents of Sycamore Heights who are objecting to having the Upland Reliability Project camped down in their midst, remains to be seen.
For Upland’s mayor, the relative merits of allowing the Upland Reliability Project to proceed to completion outweigh any liabilities. Velto lives more than a mile from the site where the Upland Reliability Project is to be located, such that any fire that might break out at the facility would need to progress through the entirety of two residential subdivisions and jump two major streets to present a threat to him and his family. By endorsing the project and seeing to its approval by the council, he will put himself and Upland into synchronicity with the state’s clean energy goals and priorities and undo some of the damage he did to himself and Upland when last year he publicly called for San Bernardino County to secede from California, by so doing landing himself on Governor Gavin Newsom’s political hit list. Velto’s advocacy against Sacramento’s mandates, while popular with at least a portion of his constituency and useful in securing from a subset of Republican donors funding for his future elective efforts, has burned the city’s bridges with key members of the Democratic delegation in the Democrat-controlled California Legislature, in addition to alienating Newsom. Welcoming the Upland Reliability Project would begin to lay the foundation for his rehabilitation as a representative of the state’s 111th most populous city among the controlling powers in Sacramento, clearing the way for funding that has been cut off from Upland in the last state budgetary cycle to be restored. Velto’s willingness to saddle the 2nd District with a land use some of its residents find undesirable might also be of assistance to him closer to home. Those in the city’s Second District who are doing their part to bring about energy independence for California by hosting the Tesla showroom and dealership would be heartened to know that another section of the city is joining with them in what many believe should be a concerted collective effort toward achieving a worthwhile goal. And the residents of the 3rd and 4th districts, who have had to live with not one but dozens, indeed scores of commercial, semi-commercial/industrial, light industrial and even medium industrial uses in the midst of their neighborhoods, might experience some measure of social justice and satisfaction in seeing that the wealthy residents of Sycamore Hills, ones capable of plunking down $800,000, $900,000, $1 million or $1.1 million to purchase a home, are not immune from having the city and its zoning and development codes intrude upon the tranquility and livability of their neck of the woods. And while Velto might lose some votes from those in the Sycamore Hills District by presiding over a decision-making panel that approves placing a high-intensity energy storage facility in their midst, he is likely to gain as many votes from elsewhere in the 1st District further removed in distance from the site.
1st District Councilwoman Shannan Maust is for those opposed to the project their last and best hope that the project can be arrested in its tracks. Still, that Maust will go to bat for them is by no means certain. She could elect to jump on the Upland Reliability Project bandwagon.
Even if Maust leaps into the breach, preventing the project from coming to fruition remains a dicey prospect. She prevailed in May by having Tesla’s car storage lot moved to the city’s corporate yard, but this will be the second time she has come to the well, asking her colleagues to spare her constituents the inconvenience of having to put up with a facility intended to assist in promoting a carbon-free energy model. Given all the considerations relating to the issue, that may prove a tall order.
Of paramount importance is Maust’s political status. For many months, there have been recurrent reports that she will not seek reelection in 2024. This is the problematic, at least from the standpoint of the project opponents.
Going into that battle as a lame duck – a councilwoman who will not be around beyond her current term – would not auger well for her or the cause. If her council colleagues recognize that they will not need to put up with her presence among them beyond November of 2024, they will have no reason to listen to Maust’s entreaties on behalf of the residents of Sycamore Hills and the other areas of the First District who have reason to be concerned about the explosiveness of those massive batteries and the fire hazard they represent. If Maust is to take a stand against the Upland Reliability Project, it is important that she maintain a position of strength on the council, remain as someone who is there to stay, and remain beyond the term she was elected to in 2020.
Perhaps the best argument to be made against the project is that, given the current state of the science when it comes to large-scale, standalone battery energy storage facilities, the most prudent thing to do is to delay the project until design improvements on such voltage repositories are made.
Something quite similar has been ongoing in Santa Fe Springs. Twice city officials in that Los Angeles County city were scheduled to consider a standalone battery energy storage facility in their jurisdiction. Twice that proposal was removed from the council’s agenda at the last minute over concerns that the hazard of such a facility is an unacceptable risk to that community.
Instead of rushing forward and allowing GridStor to build the facility as it is proposing and allowing the residents of Sycamore Hills to serve as guinea pigs, Maust may simply suggest that Upland hold off and wait, wait until the design flaws in standalone battery energy storage facilities are addressed and corrected. Velto and the other members of the council might prove amenable to such an appeal. After all, they are Uplanders themselves.
If Maust indeed intends to stand and fight, to wage a dual-pronged battle in which she seeks to halt the Upland Reliability Project and to remain in office past 2024, she should expect some opposition. If such a scenario plays out and a resident of the First District challenges Maust, that candidate will likely be heavily backed by GridStor and Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC.
Prime movers with GridStor are its CEO, Chris Taylor; its vice president of finance, Anna Astretsova; its project development manager, Corey Barnes; its executive assistant and office manager, Maylin Brennan; its vice president for policy and strategy, Jason Burwen; its senior manager for procurement and contracts, Nicole Carrigan; its controller, Steve Caspell; its manager of finance, Joshua Chandy; its project finance associate, Michaela Copenhaver; its engineering, procurement, construction and technical operations manager, Daniel Dedrick; its vice president for business operations, Anne Emig; its program development manager, Matrell Everett; its transmission and interconnections manager, Ayesha Fareedi; its senior financial planning and analysis manager, Nathan Fjeldahl; it director of development, Matthew Gilliland; its engineering, procurement and construction project manager, Adam Horvath; its director of analytics, Will Jolley; its solutions architect, Alex Krall; its general counsel and chief compliance officer, Ben Lackey; its project development manager, Jarred McGhee, its vice president of development, Kathryn Meyer, its vice president of mergers and acquisitions, Jack Murray; its senior manager of market analytics, Brett Rudder; its vice president of transmission and interconnection, Esteban Santos; its project engineering manager, Kaushik Seshadri; its vice president of marketing, Jacob Steubing; its vice president for human resources, Patricia Wortham; its senior associate for commercial and business operations, Tony Ye; its vice president for asset management, Paul Zovesoff; and its director of market operations, Zhechong Zhao.
Upland Reliability Project Holdings, LLC has taken advantage of its status as a Delaware Corporation to refrain from publicly disclosing its ownership and management.