PNNL Releases Guidance on Local Battery Energy Storage Systems

By Battery Power Staff

November 14, 2023 | Battery energy storage systems (BESS) are growing in popularity—gaining policy support and decreasing in price—which is driving rapid growth in the installation of these systems in the United States and around the world. To date, 10 states have adopted legislation or executive actions requiring electric utilities to install certain amounts of energy storage, and many states have also established financial incentives and other policies designed to encourage the use of energy storage to make the electric grid more flexible, according to the authors of a new report— Energy Storage in Local Zoning Ordinances—from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

PNNL released the report today prepared by a team of PNNL energy storage and battery safety experts, to define the potential community impacts of an energy storage project in terms relevant to local planners.

The report provides an overview of BESS from a land use perspective and describes their implications for zoning and project permitting. Because a BESS is modular in nature and has limited infrastructure requirements, it has the potential to be placed on infill developments in close proximity to existing uses, which creates the potential for conflict. As the use of BESS grows, local planning and zoning staff are increasingly being asked to determine where the systems can be built and how their impacts on surrounding uses can be mitigated.

The report includes an analysis of current energy storage zoning standards adopted by local jurisdictions in the U.S. The intent is to objectively inform land use decisions for energy storage projects by equipping planning officials with relevant information about these technologies and knowledge of what questions to ask during review processes, so that energy storage projects can move forward in ways that will benefit electric systems while not unduly affecting host communities.

BESS Learning Curves

Batteries are a unique class of energy system infrastructure, PNNL believes. Because the basic unit is small—either a cell that is just a bit larger than a standard AA battery or a pouch that can be as small as your cell phone battery—BESS are modular and can be configured in virtually any size. As a relatively new energy storage option, many communities don’t understand the safety, zoning, and community outreach needed as installments become part of neighborhoods—both in urban and rural areas.

Devyn Powell, an economist at PNNL and one of the authors of the report, surveyed local zoning ordinances and regulators. Powell believes these information gaps can make it difficult for communities and local land use planners to respond to proposed battery storage projects or develop zoning ordinances to guide future expansion. The new report provides real-world examples of how communities have addressed these impacts.

“Local planners already have a lot going on and asking them to become energy experts in the short time frame of a zoning proceeding—on top of everything else—isn’t reasonable,” said Jeremy Twitchell, a PNNL energy advisor and co-author of the report in a statement about the report. “This report provides local planners with objective information that can help them fill in those gaps by identifying questions they can ask and conditions they can craft to assure their communities receive the benefits of energy storage while being protected from its risks.”

Managing Safety Risks

Battery storage system failure or fire has been well documented and extensively studied; the PNNL report offers information and suggestions for risk mitigation strategies.

“As with any complex electrical appliance or piece of equipment, failures occasionally occur,” said Matthew Paiss, a PNNL battery safety expert and the third report co-author, in the same statement. “In BESS, while this is rare, it must be considered in the planning process.”

Paiss refers planners to several battery safety resources, including National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 855, the International Fire Code, and UL Solutions.

“A lot of community uncertainty is about safety considerations and how restrictive to be with BESS to balance aesthetic and safety concerns with deployment or policy goals,” added Powell. “Battery energy storage systems are still emerging technologies and unfamiliar to many local planners. By developing resources that describe key considerations and show what types of regulations have been adopted in other towns and counties, we hope that including common-sense regulations for BESS in local zoning codes will soon become as common as regulations for solar PV.”

Aesthetic & Environmental Concerns

Zoning considerations, such as sound, odor, and visual and environmental emissions, need to be addressed. While these things might not seem as important as safety, they are still concerns for planners. Most BESS are in electrical enclosures, cabinets, or modified shipping containers. PNNL researchers suggest that planners consider site location—whether BESS will be housed in new or old facilities—or whether they will they be placed outside where planners might want to consider trees or other visual barriers. Looking holistically at the size and complexity of a system figures into guidance on sound and odor emissions to neighboring buildings.

And finally, environmental impacts should be considered in the rare event of a failure. Battery systems do not have emissions or environmental impacts during normal operations. During a fire, however, emergency response plans should address the strategy that will be used to mitigate the incident. For example, if water will be used for protecting any exposure, will containment of run-off be required? If smoke presents a potential risk to nearby occupancies, will a shelter-in-place or evacuation be issued?

“By identifying the potential risks of battery energy storage and how those risks have been addressed in fire and electric codes as well as local zoning ordinances from around the country,” explained the report authors, “this work may be useful to local planning and zoning officials who are tasked with responding to a proposed battery storage project in their jurisdiction in crafting project conditions and zoning ordinances that will enable the growth of these beneficial technologies while mitigating their risks to local residents.”