By Jason Stone & Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
The investigation into the lithium-ion battery explosion at an APS station in Surprise is getting worldwide attention for more reason than one.
Investigators are trying to figure out how the battery that stores solar energy for nighttime use exploded at the McMicken Energy Storage facility near Grand Avenue and Deer Valley Road on April 19.
But energy technology experts are also awaiting the results of the investigations to see what it means for the lithium-ion battery’s future in general.
The explosion that injured four Peoria and four Surprise firefighters was reported around the world. Just days after the incident, Bloomberg reported 21 fires have been counted at battery projects in South Korea, but the Surprise fire was the first time one happened in America.
The investigations are critical as lithium-ion batteries have proven to be the top mainstream battery storage option for devices such as cell phones, hearing aids, MP3 players, thermometers, car remote locks and other common devices.
Ravi Manghani, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, told Bloomberg, “If these fires continue to occur, it doesn’t bode well for the industry in the short term and the storage market will almost certainly slow down.”
Until the fire, most Surprise residents probably didn’t even know the storage unit was even in their city.
APS has used Surprise as one of three locations for the storage facilities – the others are in Buckeye and near Payson – and the company is still planning on expanding the program across the state to eventually have the capacity to provide electricity to 600,000 homes.
Smoke then fire
The first reports of smoke from the facility forced Surprise first responders to call in a hazmat unit from the Peoria Fire-Medical Department to assist.
Following what numerous reports described as a loud explosion, the Peoria firefighters – Captain Hunter Clare, engineer Justin Lopez, firefighter Matt Cottini and firefighter Jake Ciulla – were transported to trauma centers.
More than two weeks after the explosion, APS officials still haven’t said what happened.
“At this point in the investigation it is not clear exactly,” said Annie DeGraw, who until last week was a spokeswoman for APS before leaving to take a similar job in Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego’s office. “I know a lot of people are saying there was an explosion and that it blew up, but at this point we cannot even verify if that occurred.”
“We know there was a failure and something happened, but we aren’t exactly sure what machinery caused that and what were the steps leading up to that actually taking place.”
APS took the other two power facilities in the state offline after the explosion.
“This is a typical step for someone who’s as safety-focused as APS,” Ms. DeGraw said.
Surprise spokeswoman Diane Arthur said the city was aware the lithium-ion battery storage was there, but the city doesn’t have the authority to regulate APS installations within the community.
“We were notified by APS regarding the location of the energy storage system approximately in the spring of 2016,” Ms. Arthur said. “As for permitting, the 2012 International Building Code exempts Public Service Agencies.”
The Surprise City Code 105.2.3 Public Service Agencies reads: “A permit shall not be required for the installation, alteration or repair of generation, transmission, distribution or metering or other related equipment that is under the ownership and control of public service agencies by established right.”
Other municipalities, like the City of Phoenix, adhere to similar exemptions because, according to commentary provided in their code: “Utilities that supply electricity, gas, water, telephone, television cable, etc., do not require permits for work involving the transmission lines and metering equipment that they own and control … Utilities are typically regulated by other laws that give them specific rights and authority in this area.”
While installation of a fence surrounding the battery unit in Surprise – which is roughly the size of a shipping container – did require a permit approval from city officials, the battery itself did not, Ms. Arthur confirmed.
Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said her agency does not regulate battery storage facilities, since that technology is not known to emit pollutants into the atmosphere.
She was unsure under whose jurisdiction electric power storage facilities might fall, Ms. Jordan said.
Asked which agencies are responsible for regulating lithium-ion battery installations, the APS spokeswoman also could not confirm but said she would look into the matter.