Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Big Batteries Are Changing the Energy Landscape

Since the beginning of APA's Solar@Scale partnership with ICMA, one ancillary topic has loomed large in our advisory committee meetings: battery energy storage systems (BESS). These systems are vitally important to integrating variable electricity generation sources, like solar and wind, onto the power grid. Like solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, BESS is widely scalable, with practical applications ranging from electric scooters to massive grid-balancing facilities covering hundreds of acres. But that may be where the similarities end.

Perhaps the most significant difference is the level of safety risk associated with system failure. When a PV system fails, it stops generating power. When a BESS fails, thermal runaway can cause fire and, in rare cases, an explosion. Given this risk and the rapidly increasing and widespread interest in BESS development, it's surprising how few communities explicitly address BESS in their land use and development regulations.

In the March issue of Zoning Practice, "Battery Energy Storage Systems," Brian Ross, AICP, and Monika Vadali, Ph.D., offer a handy primer for those who need to get up to speed fast on the key land-use considerations and regulatory alternatives.

Energy Storage Is Hardly a New Land Use

Most new large-scale solar facilities include battery storage, and interest in standalone BESS has skyrocketed following the inclusion of tax credits for these projects in the Inflation Reduction Act. As Ross and Vadali note, battery systems are beneficial across the rural-to-urban transect. This means most communities will, sooner or later, need to formulate a strategy for accommodating grid-connected BESS.

The appearance of these systems — shipping containers with ventilation equipment on the outside and rows of batteries and control hardware inside — is something new for many communities, but the challenges associated with making space for them are not. Ross and Vadali point out that most communities already host some form of energy storage. Think of the gas stations, grain silos, and liquid fuel depots in cities, towns, and counties throughout the U.S. Now consider that each of these uses can also pose significant safety risks. [In fact, there were nine-grain dust explosions in 2023 alone.] So, while BESS does have a distinct appearance and risk profile, there are basic lessons we can apply from other energy storage uses.

Leave Some of the Heavy Lifting to NFPA

New use definitions and zoning standards can go a long way toward clearing up regulatory ambiguities for BESS. It's important to clarify what types of systems are permissible in each zoning district, and objective dimensional, performance, and design standards can help minimize visual impacts. However, this doesn't mean that zoning needs to, or even should, do the heavy lifting when it comes to mitigating safety risks.

As Ross and Vadali point out, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has already established safety standards for stationary energy storage systems through NFPA 855. They recommend simply requiring compliance with these standards rather than attempting to craft detailed zoning standards to achieve the same aim. This both takes the burden off planners and local officials for getting technical standards exactly right and, when widely replicated, can accelerate the deployment of BESS and, by extension, the clean energy transition.

Battery Energy Storage Systems

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

Subscribe Online

Top image: Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL 56322

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

March 13, 2024

By David Morley, AICP