Responses to Energy Storage Systems

By PAUL ROGERS

Green energy is emerging and, with it, a new power source; thus, there are risks involved. Energy storage systems (ESS) and the strategies involved in renewable energy have many benefits, but with every new technology comes new challenges including the hazards and risks to first responders. Fire departments are being asked to accept these new technologies and work with the green industry. However, we must remind the green industry that it must work with us, too, by producing testing results that are important to the fire service during their failure mode analysis. Some new batteries have a battery monitoring system (BMS) that is supervised from a remote location to check on the battery efficiency and failure modes. The system is designed to shut down if any safety parameters within the system malfunction. This article focuses on ESS, which is rapidly being introduced into New York City (NYC) in existing and new construction high-rise commercial/residential buildings and will eventually reach other municipalities because of its rapid expansion.

(1, 2) Demand Energy’s Joule.System™, in the Paramount Building at 240 East 39th Street in Manhattan. (Photos courtesy of Demand Energy.)

This burgeoning program in NYC is drawing attention from the private sector as well as the public. Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), the public utility company serving NYC, needs to reduce its power consumption. NYC is building at a rapid pace, and this expansion is placing such intense demands on electrical power that there is a risk that the power sources available today will not be able to produce enough energy during the peak hours of the business day.

Con Ed has put together a program allowing building owners to apply for funding to purchase batteries with the qualification that the commercial landlords install these batteries inside their buildings so the peak load is reduced during daylight peak consumption time. The batteries will be charged at night when power is more readily available, and they will use the stored energy during daytime peak hours when demand is high. Although these batteries have clear benefits, this evolving technology presents a precarious situation for fire departments that do not have standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) to deal with them.

Risks to First Responders

Battery chemistry. Depending on the individual specifications of the landlord/real estate sector/owner, the ESS may differ from one building to another. It is never recommended to have two or more different chemistries in the same location or even within the same building. There are more than 80 chemistries available from which consumers can choose. These chemistries may be a derivative of chemistry-for example, lithium-ion has different variations. Each chemistry has its own set of challenges including corrosives, reactive metals, toxic gases, hydrogen, and thermal runaway.

Electrical issues. If these batteries fail, the fire service would be called in for fire suppression within the battery systems. Typically, the fire department shuts down electrical power prior to operating. The problem in this case is that even if the power is shut down, there still is STORED energy inside the system that can injure or even electrocute a first responder. For example, if water is one of the suppressing options, firefighters need to be aware that there is a danger of electrical current flowing back to the firefighter’s nozzle, thereby increasing the risk of injury to the first responder-a process known as “electrical leakage.” Initial testing results demonstrate that keeping a safe distance (depending on the voltage) and using a fog pattern (rather than a straight stream application) set at 30° are recommended and preferable. All testing done by fire protection engineers and the military suggests that when you place an additive such as foam, wetting agents, or other suppressive agents into the attack line, that additive will make the water more electrically conductive, thereby increasing the risk of electrical injury.

Buildings

Since there are no codes or standards to follow for these types of systems and their current use, there is no guideline for fire protection. The system’s location within the building should be in an area to which the general public has no access and that will not interfere with the building evacuation routes, which would be hard in existing buildings but easier in new construction. Hydrogen sensors should be placed in the battery room or the immediate location of the batteries, and consider ventilation for chemistry that produces flammable and potential toxic gases as a by-product of normal battery operations. No combustible materials should be stored in the battery storage rooms. Also, post signs that warn first responders of the type of dangers involved-i.e., WARNING: BATTERY STORAGE ROOM Electric Hazard/Corrosive Hazard.

NYC requires that someone from the building such as a building engineer or a maintenance supervisor take a fire department examination that demonstrates proficiency in the operation of the building’s battery storage system. The examination basically gives building personnel a three-year certificate of fitness (C of F) license for safe operations of a battery system. This C of F holder must meet with fire personnel when there is a fire or an emergency that involves these battery systems. A licensed holder must be on the premises while the battery system is in operation, which is usually 24 hours a day.

Some municipalities may need to think about placing these batteries in their own separate room to contain the system. This room containment is sufficient in new construction, but in an existing structure a separate room could be of tremendous cost to the owner, thereby killing the much needed program of energy storage and peak demand shaving.

The fire service must straddle that fine line with the industry and protect its firefighters from serious injury or death. We will never eliminate all the risks associated with ESS, but we can reduce the risk by using innovative techniques that can be a compromise for all stakeholders.

Training and SOPs

Although we have identified the clear benefits of this technology, there are many gaps between the technology and the fire service. Fire departments have been responding to these situations with no guidance or SOPs; therefore, first responders are taking a defensive posture at these operations. When life safety situations are at stake, this alters the dynamic of the fire/emergency.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, does not address this type of emergency. My findings in this area revealed that the fire service is behind the curve when it comes to emergencies/fire operations for this technology.

Considerations for Fire or Emergency Response Operations

  • Ascertain locations of emergency shutoffs for the ESS.
  • NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, may need revision.
  • Know the system voltage prior to starting operations.
  • Identify the chemistry prior to developing an incident action plan.
  • After identification, understand the chemistry’s potential dangers and risks.
  • Be aware of and prepared for potential battery cell explosions.
  • During emergencies without fires, seriously consider heat propagation and monitor for it with a thermal imaging camera.
  • Fog nozzles are necessary when using water as an extinguishing agent to reduce the risk of electrical leakage.
  • Do not do overhaul until all stored energy has dissipated.
  • Consider postfire decontamination.

Technology Is Evolving Faster than Fire Protection Demands

Fire departments need to be aware of this new type of evolving technology. Today’s technology is rapidly progressing, and the fire service must be able to adapt more quickly. Allowing new technology to make its way into structures unchecked is irresponsible and reckless. Do not be afraid to question the industry and request cooperation in managing these risks. From my experiences, we have been able to find common ground to move forward with this emerging technology, and that is a step in the right direction. As new battery chemistry continues to emerge in the ESS sector, these challenges may become more hazardous for firefighters.

Testing and information sharing are essential to the development of SOPs/SOGs; we learn and grow from these data. The fire service needs to be vigilant to its new surroundings and new technologies. We must continue to be proactive and stay above the curve to protect firefighters and to ensure the most effective and safest response.

Author’s note: Thanks to Julie Nacos for her assistance with this article.


PAUL ROGERS is a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Haz Mat Company 1, a hazmat manager with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s USAR NY-TF1, and a hazmat liaison with the United States Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. Rogers is also a hazmat instructor with the International Association of Fire Fighters, a fire prevention subject matter expert for hazmat with FDNY, and an industrial hazmat chief training instructor for Safety Consulting Group.


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