APS fire forces changes to code

Debris from the explosion of a battery energy storage system at APS’s McMicken substation,16981 W. Deer Valley Road, can still be seen just a couple of days after the April 19 blast. [Jason Stone/Independent Newsmedia]


Anybody who has talked on a cellphone or typed on a laptop has used a lithium-ion battery.

And anyone who has used a lithium-ion battery has tried out the energy storage technology of the future.

Few energy experts deny that battery energy storage systems, or BESS as it’s known in the industry, is the preferred way to store energy for future needs.

In fact, Surprise Fire-Medical Department Chief Tom Abbott calls BESS “essential for sustaining the electrical grid.”

For companies like APS, which is the biggest energy provider in Arizona, the need to find cheap ways to store energy from rooftop solar panels at night led it to invest in battery storage unit containers.

“When the electricity is produced at one of the power plants, it’s either used or goes to the ground,” Mr. Abbott said. “The best way to use it is to capture it. And the best way to capture it is through a battery system.”

The way APS and some others view it, BESS bring them the most bang for their buck.

Unfortunately, it’s the “bang” part that is concerning Surprise fire officials after the April 19 explosion at APS’s McMicken plant, 16981 W. Deer Valley Road.

“Battery storage systems are the wave of the future — we know they are coming, and we support them,” Mr. Abbott said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to compromise public safety over that.”

Hoping to keep up with the rapidly changing industry, Mr. Abbott and his crew began investigating the benefits and dangers of BESS.

It turns out fire officials had no idea what APS was doing inside the storage-container-sized buildings at the Surprise plant.

The city was able to require a permit for the fence that went around the building, but not what was actually in the building.

When Vice Mayor Roland Winters asked the chief if anybody knew about the batteries inside during a presentation in front of the City Council on Aug. 6, Mr. Abbott responded, “No, we did not.”

Changes afoot

Surprise Fire released its initial report about the APS incident last week – strategically on the same day Mr. Abbott approached the City Council about changes to the fire code to include battery storage facilities like the one that exploded.

“After the incident that occurred at the McMicken site on April 19, one of the outcomes I was hoping for was the ability to provide regulations on safety devices and safety features,” Mr. Abbott said.

APS spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said the utility installed the batteries at the site two years. But because the existing 2012 International Fire Code doesn’t address battery storage systems, there wasn’t much involvement Surprise fire officials had with their installation.

“We really didn’t have a way to addressing these systems,” Mr. Abbott said.

The fire code updates mean APS or another company will have to go through the approval process of obtaining a permit as well as sharing construction plans with the city.

It would also require those applications to provide protection measures like making sure an automatic fire suppression system is installed and has proper ventilation.

“We believe this is a good way to start out,” Mr. Abbott said. “They will have to pull permits, etc. It will require to them to adhere to the requirements of these battery systems.”

Mr. Abbott said Phoenix had already adopted the code language and all other Valley cities are in “one stage or another” of adopting the same language that Phoenix first adopted.

“So, we’ll be consistent throughout the metropolitan Phoenix area,” Mr. Abbott said.

Action replay

Surprise’s report on the APS explosion doesn’t answer why it happened, which is something some experts aren’t sure will ever be known.

But the report does provide more detail about the explosion itself, which are hoping to bring more clues to investigators.

Early that Friday evening, a resident who lives near the substation at Deer Valley and Grand Avenue saw smoke coming from the storage container that housed the batteries.

Four members of the Surprise Fire-Medical Department cut a lock on the security gate, but decided it wasn’t yet safe to go inside the building.

The report showed the fire crew called for a hazmat team to help out, but with other Surprise firefighters on calls, a crew from Peoria Fire Department was sent in.

Mr. Abbott said the batteries inside were placed on racks, making them resemble a computer server room.

“But they’re utility grade, so they’re storing vasts amounts of electricity,” Mr. Abbott said. “They’re not your common everyday battery.”

According to the report, the Peoria crew approached the building armed with gas detectors and a hose line. After taking several readings of the temperature, the crews decided it was safe to go in when it was as low as 104 degrees.

Blast away

By all accounts, Captain Hunter Clare, fire engineer Justin Lopez and firefighters Matt Cottini and Jake Ciulla are lucky to be alive after the unit exploded shortly after opening the door.

The men’s facemasks and helmets were blown off, including right in the face of one of them.

The injuries were staggering: a skull fracture, a collapsed lung, a broken rib, a broken leg and a sliced artery in a leg, a thoracic fracture, burns and cuts, plus broken noses, ankles and wrists.

The firefighters were also burned by acid and base chemicals that probably came from the batteries that exploded.

“You could see the bowing of the building and that was a steal building,” Mr. Abbott said. “The amount of power that was exhibited by this caused a lot of concern.”

The batteries stored so much power, in fact, it took APS just until two weeks ago to drain all the power from them before it was finally safe to completely empty out the building.

Mr. Abbott said poor ventilation in the unit could ultimately prove to be one of the causes of the explosion. Experts say high temperatures and puncturing the battery are the main dangers of the technology.

That potential for damage from BESS explosions was on display at the McMicken incident with the possible release of toxic, flammable and explosive gases.

APS recently posted an update on its website, reporting it is still awaiting independent studies to come in and that it plans to send some samples to a specialist in Michigan to hope shed light on the explosion.

Bringing it back home

Surprise fire officials aren’t just concerned with commercial battery storage. A new APS home program is also in effect.

“We have a handful of homeowners who have put battery systems on their houses,” Mr. Abbott said. “There was an incentive program, which is another cause of concern for us and our personnel.”

Mr. Abbott said 19 homeowners are participating in the APS trial program by having so-called “power walls” installed outside their homes.

“These batteries should be on the exterior of a home, no closer than three foot to any opening or window in a residence and that includes the garage,” Mr. Abbott said. “The heat will cause these lithium-ion batteries to go into thermal runaway.”

When that happens, the batteries will emit toxic and flammable gasses as well as different fluoride salts.

Mr. Abbott said all batteries should be listed and tested through “UL test 9540A,” a standard which virtually no indoor batter in the market meets.

“They’ll have to go on the outside of the home.”

Spreading the word

Now that they’ve done research, Mr. Abbott and other Surprise fire officials plan to go to another part of the state to teach what they’ve learned.

In late September, Mr. Abbott will speak at Pima County Fire Chiefs Association to “present what we’ve learned from the McMicken site and this same code.”

“And we’re hoping they will adopt it down in Pima County,” he said.

Mr. Abbott said he hopes his information to other fire departments  will help speed up the bureaucratic red tape.

“Somebody from Peoria Fire put it best for us: ‘Battery technology is improving at the speed of light. Our ability to regulate them is improving at the speed of government,’” Mr. Abbot said.

As for the future of the technology in Arizona, just days after the explosion, APS recommitted its efforts to build more battery storage facilities like the one that failed. It’s part of the company’s effort to add nearly a gigawatt of new clean-energy projects by summer 2025.

The McMicken facility was one of three in the state – the others in Sun City Festival and Punkin Center, not far from Payson. APS recently decommissioned the Sun City Festival site when it lost its lease on the land because of development. Ms. Trevino said the batteries are being held in Tempe until a new site is found.

Arizona Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy is one state leader who wants more investigation into the developing technology.

In a letter she wrote on the ACC’s website last week, Ms. Kennedy recommended APS develop other sources of energy storage.

In the letter she said the lithium-ion battery storage creates “unacceptable risks.”

Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, on email at jstone@newszap.com or on Twitter at @thestonecave.

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