Battery energy storage systems critical to public safety

A battery array storing backup energy for an office. (Photo: Vittee, via Shutterstock)

Everyone is familiar with the saying about an ounce of prevention. California Professional Firefighters urge the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) to take a common sense, important action to help prevent avoidable fire hazards.

When it meets March 21 (tomorrow), we urge the CSLB to clarify regulations to ensure that only qualified, licensed and adequately trained electrical contractors are authorized to install battery energy storage systems.

Firefighters are increasingly reporting on the dangers these systems can cause with faulty installation or poor maintenance.

Battery energy storage systems are rechargeable battery systems that capture and store energy — from solar systems or the electric grid.

These systems act effectively as a mini-power plant. Because battery energy storage systems capture and store energy for later use, these systems are a key technology to help California meet our clean energy and emissions reduction goals and expand the adoption of solar, wind, and other clean energy sources.

More and more, these systems are being installed in our homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. However, if not installed and maintained correctly by qualified and licensed electrical contractors and electricians, battery energy storage systems pose unique fire, electrical and public safety risks to installers, consumers, utility workers, emergency personnel and firefighters.

Fires involving battery energy storage systems are particularly dangerous for firefighters as they burn at extreme heat, can react violently with water and can reignite even after being extinguished. Firefighters are increasingly reporting on the dangers these systems can cause with faulty installation or poor maintenance.

Improper installation can lead to electrocution, arc flashes, arc blasts, fires, explosions, thermal runaway and exposure to hazardous chemicals and gases. These risks are so intense that in some cases, they could affect the entire electrical system the storage system is connected to or even the electric grid itself.

For these reasons, current regulations require a C-10 electrical contractor’s license to install battery energy storage systems as a stand-alone system. However, a loophole in the regulations has allowed C-46 licensed contractors (solar photovoltaic companies) and their employees to install battery energy storage systems when paired with a solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

A solar energy system is completely different than a battery energy storage system. While they can be paired together, both operate independently. A battery transforms electrical energy into chemical energy and then back into electricity. That’s why the California Fire Code regulates battery energy storage systems differently than solar PV systems.

C-46 licensed contractors and their employees are not required by the state to possess electrical training and certification. As such, they do not receive the extensive and specialized training needed to safely install and maintain battery energy storage systems. This is akin to having a plumber install a new roof on your house—they don’t possess the training required or the expertise.

On the other hand, C-10 electrical contractors and electricians must have 8,000 hours of hands on experience, pass a state exam and have an understanding of the National Electric Code.C-10 licensed contractors and their certified electrician employees have expertise in all types of electrical work, including connecting electrical equipment to the grid, and upgrading existing electrical systems for additional load and service.

The CSLB has been reviewing these classifications and is anticipated to make a decision at their March 21st meeting.

Battery storage technology is a key tool in advancing our clean energy goals. Ensuring we handle the technology properly to avoid preventable fires and catastrophe is critical to ensure continued adoption of this important technology.

It would be a risk to public safety for the CSLB to allow unspecialized contractors and workers to install battery energy storage systems. Firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect people and property. Anything our state can do to reduce the cause of fires will save lives. California Professional Firefighters encourage the CSLB to make clear that only licensed and trained C-10 contractors and electricians can install and maintain battery energy storage systems.

Editor’s Note: Brian Rice is president of the California Professional Firefighters, which has a membership of more than 30,000 firefighters and advocates on behalf of the needs of career firefighters.


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