Kelly Sarber is CEO of Strategic Management and vice chair of NY-BEST, a battery industry trade group in New York. Scott M. Bryant is president and CEO of Fire & Risk Alliance.
As energy storage developers continue to ramp up efforts to implement utility-scale battery projects, adopting strong and proactive outreach and education is becoming more important since community support has become a precursor to securing other approvals. As policies collide with politics, states like New York are considering requiring stronger outreach around safety as necessary to set the stage to gain other entitlements including power purchase agreements and local permissions like zoning and fire code enforcement.
Prior to recent fires at a number of sites, including in New York and California, energy storage projects were treated as somewhat “benign” with their climate-friendly benefits outweighing any perceived negative impacts. Unfortunately, with the recent spate of fires, the perception of these projects as having no impact no longer rings true, as the public begins to question the perceived lack of safety requirements due to incidents being widely covered in the news. In each case no one was hurt, the duration was small and the equipment acted as planned once there were thermal abnormalities. But the resulting news coverage and corresponding community concerns raised questions around information gaps and lack of first responder outreach prior to the incidents. This lack of expert responses to the media in real time served to increase community concerns, highlighting the need for the industry to be better prepared to provide context and factual information for inclusion in the press cycle.
Due to these developments, our energy storage trade group, NY-BEST, is working collaboratively with a recently convened New York State task force to provide industry best practices for fire safety and community outreach. Some of our early discussions highlight increased transparency related to system design, operating characteristics, and strengthening requirements for first responder planning to assist with community support when projects are first announced. New policies offered by NY-BEST around fire safety include standardization of emergency response plans meant to capture every reasonable scenario that occurs at these facilities along with the hazards and appropriate response tactics for solving them. Training for the first responder community needs to undergo the same level of standardization around the nation and not just in urban locations.
Developers in the storage industry should uniformly prepare members of the fire services to manage these low frequency, high hazard events using the new and robust emergency response plans outlined in these training platforms. In addition, once an incident occurs at these facilities, the operator must be obligated to share a root cause analysis within a reasonable time frame to allow the industry to address any shortcomings that emerge that can improve safety for future installations. This will enable the emergency response officials and the elected leadership they work for to quickly respond, learn and implement mitigation tactics to prevent similar events. Disclosure cannot be driven by lawyers but must be driven by safety and respect for the communities in which these facilities reside.
One of the first significant energy storage fire incidents in the U.S. occurred in 2019 at the McMicken Battery Energy Storage System in Arizona shortly after the inception of National Fire Protection Agency, or NFPA, 855 which regulates stationary energy storage. It took the NFPA less than two years to place significant safety controls on these installations.
The meeting of the NFPA 855 technical committee a few months ago focused specifically on the concerns of regulators and community members. The public needs to appreciate there is a continuing, strong commitment to safety from these experts with the intent to understand why and how incidents occur and to have flexibility to implement code improvements that may lead to safer operations.
NFPA 855’s national technical committee has worked diligently to require large-scale fire testing, explosions controls and safety features for energy storage systems to operate in an autonomous fashion, with each component equally important. In the revision cycle to be published in 2026, expect to see requirements to better identify and characterize the types of emissions created by fires or fumes from battery storage failures, which will drive system approvals by relevant officials under the local fire code. The need to increase redundancy in energy storage systems from two hours to 24 hours has also been proposed to the NFPA committee for adoption into the standard. It is anticipated this change will pass and be published as part of the next update to NFPA 855.
From a practical standpoint, it is paramount that first responders and local fire departments tasked with responding to emergencies at battery installations have specific training and incident response plans that are of the highest caliber with the latest controls. This commitment needs to fall on the developer and their key fire safety consultant to use these best practices in working with and training local fire departments. As a developer, it is the first, crucial step in securing public support for these projects. Equally important, is the communication to the broader community of how these technically prescribed codes and standards will alleviate any risks and hazards while also demonstrating commitments to make improvements to the regulatory environment if new controls or requirements are deemed or discovered to be necessary.
The key intention of developer outreach is to make sure that community members are aware of, involved in, and supportive of the battery project. With capital costs for a typical large, stand-alone battery installation in the several hundred-million-dollar range, outreach is an investment that is well worth making as it will set the stage for a project’s development trajectory. People quickly understand the need for batteries and the role that they play. If the location is considered acceptable from a use and safety standpoint, communities typically will pivot to explore benefits including jobs, taxes, energy resiliency and support for the green energy transition.
Experience shows that most people will conclude that energy storage projects can be operated safely if there has been a process of open communication between the community and developer, ongoing information flow with the fire department, and frank discussions of the risks of an energy storage incident as compared to relatable risks that people face every day. Better still, they will feel comfortable in the knowledge that appropriate plans are in place, and local responders are protected and trained, if an incident were to occur.
Once communities feel that safety and any other impacts — zoning use, aesthetics, noise, etc. — are addressed, and they become comfortable with these risks and choose to accept slight impacts, the benefits of energy storage can be better appreciated. While each community has their own unique characteristics, generally time and relationship building will earn a fair debate on merits. While we face other headwinds, our industry should be able to navigate some of these development challenges by investing in community support through an emphasis on safety, leading to successful project development, construction and operations.