Commentary

Three Solutions to Fire Safety Challenges: Lessons from the Energy Storage Industry

The world’s energy landscape is evolving rapidly, driven by the increasing demand for resilient, cost-effective, and net-zero sources of energy. Policymakers and regulators now can’t ignore the fundamental role that the energy storage industry is playing in the clean energy transition—stabilizing the grid as more renewable energy assets come online. This recognition is creating huge opportunities for energy storage, which is on track to pass 9 TWh of capacity by 2050.

But stakeholders have one issue that is threatening to hold the industry back: concerns about fire. While energy storage systems often carry lower fire risks than other forms of energy storage and processing—such as oil and gas refineries—the industry must answer some important questions about safety to avoid regulatory constraints, alleviate community opposition, and clear up the confusion about whether energy storage systems (ESS) are safe. The industry must agree on an approach to unify fire code regulations, engage openly with key stakeholders, and work side-by-side with fire experts.

Agree on a Unified Approach to Fire Code Adoption

As it currently stands, there is no universal fire code that governs the energy storage industry. The two primary reference standards—National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 855 and the International Fire Code (IFC)—may be adopted with different amendments by every jurisdiction. Each code requires slightly different things from manufacturers, designers, and developers, and each must be handled slightly differently by officials. This creates uncertainty about what is required and expected of each stakeholder involved in setting up an energy storage project.

This multi-party, cross-jurisdictional complexity could be avoided by choosing to adopt one of these standards consistently across the energy storage industry. The conditions and guidelines under both standards ensure the design, operation, and maintenance of energy storage systems are carried out safely and securely. Manufacturers should target meeting all the requirements of these standards, which will ensure fire safety compliance everywhere—even if a jurisdiction hasn’t adopted the standard.

This unified approach would improve the ability of practitioners, regulators, manufacturers, and local communities to assess whether a new ESS is safe and gives stakeholders confidence that best practices are being met. This simplification will help to address the concerns that are threatening to undermine booming energy storage growth.

Share Knowledge with the Right Stakeholders

Considering so many stakeholders are actively involved in the processes that ensure ESS are safe, communication is key. The industry must invest in knowledge-sharing between manufacturers, first responders, code authoring bodies (NFPA, International Code Council [ICC], and Underwriters Laboratories [UL]), and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), the local regulators responsible for enforcing the safety codes. Forging close relationships with these key stakeholders—the people that are ultimately responsible for handling any fire-related incidents should they occur—enables maximum oversight and transparency, imparting confidence that manufacturers have accountability for minimizing fire risk.

The energy storage industry should engage early in the project permitting process to get a sense of local concerns and gauge the level of understanding of regulators, policymakers, and the local community. Unfamiliar audiences understandably require more time to warm up to new technologies but can be encouraged by manufacturers and developers who demonstrate they are proactively engaging with stakeholders to understand their needs.

In partnership with AHJ and first responders, manufacturers and other energy storage experts should facilitate industry seminars and workshops that explore the nuances of fire risk in a broader context, comparing the risk posed by ESS with other types of fire risks that stakeholders are more familiar with. Showcasing how the energy storage industry is doubling down on safety improvements can help alleviate stakeholders’ concerns while putting the industry’s safety innovation on full display.

Finally, energy storage manufacturers should make as much third-party testing information as possible publicly available to offer full transparency into the industry’s safety process. Trust among stakeholders is best developed through open and transparent dialogue.

Align Manufacturer and Fire Safety Experts’ Efforts

Taking collaboration a step further, energy storage manufacturers should actively partner with independent fire safety organizations to proactively position the energy storage industry as a leader in fire safety. These organizations have strong working relationships with regulators, giving them direct opportunities to provide education on the strides being made in energy storage safety.

Fire safety organizations understand what’s important to local authorities and communities, that is, where their priorities lie and what they expect to see from the industry. In turn, this information can then be passed along to manufacturers, who—because of their role in project development—may not be trusted enough by the local authorities and communities to get access to the information first-hand.

One step the industry can take to widen the channels of communication between manufacturers and fire safety organizations is opening industry regulatory committees to additional manufacturers. The industry as a whole won’t be able to move beyond fire safety concerns unless all manufacturers are up to standard.

The Bottom Line

Communities and regulators are often wary of new and innovative technologies—and energy storage is no different—but this hesitation among stakeholders represents an opportunity for the energy storage industry to demonstrate its wholehearted commitment to fire safety. Adopting a unified approach to fire safety code adoption, focusing on knowledge-sharing with stakeholders, and improving industry and expert collaboration will mitigate fire safety concerns about energy storage, strengthening the industry’s reputation and supporting the growth needed to accommodate the renewable energy transition.

Noah Ryder is managing partner with Fire & Risk Alliance LLC, and Chris Groves is product development project manager with Wärtsilä Energy Storage and Optimization.

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