Energy providers are increasingly adopting renewable energy strategies, and the notable proliferation of solar power and wind turbine projects is driving demand for battery energy storage systems (BESS). Despite the rapid deployment and adoption of renewable energy technologies, the permitting process for BESS can be burdensome due to the novelty of this technological solution.
While wind and solar projects play a vital role in decarbonization efforts, non-dispatchable energy production is limited to when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Through the adoption of BESS, energy can be stored and subsequently supplied to the grid during peak demand periods and times of grid instability.
In 2023, BESS in the United States could store 10 gigawatts (GW) of energy, but industry projections expect 72 GW of additional capacity by 2030. The substantial expansion of BESS will support renewable energy production and energy reliability, but developers, energy providers and asset owners should be aware of the permitting requirements that could impede siting and construction of a new BESS.
Many authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) frequently lack the requisite permitting experience and knowledge to support BESS construction projects. Given that BESS technology is a rather novel concept to local municipalities, AHJ often confront unique hurdles that can delay permitting and efficient project execution.
Each authority having jurisdiction may have unique requirements and constraints, but utilities and full-service project delivery firms can prioritize the following activities to avoid delays and continue with project execution:
- Ascertain which codes and regulations are required. BESS must adhere to pertinent local and national codes and standards guiding the design, installation and operation of energy storage equipment. While fire codes and thermal runaway are often main concerns AHJ, asset owners and engineer-procure-construct (EPC) teams will probably also need to address codes and regulations for interconnection system equipment, inverters, converters, controllers, enclosures and batteries.
- Understand the AHJ's specific concerns. To identify potential issues that might impede the permitting process, it is crucial to engage the AHJ during the initial design stages of a BESS project. Frequently, AHJ are concerned about the safety aspects and the potential threat of thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries. Thermal runaway in in utility-scale batteries can result in explosions or fires. In a 2021 report published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), more than 90% of large-scale battery energy storage systems in the United States relied on lithium-ion batteries. Complying with local fire codes is critical, but before meeting with the local AHJ, the EPC team and the energy provider can review International Fire Code and National Fire Protection Association codes, which outline the essential requirements to address risks associated with BESS.
- Gather and assemble early due-diligence studies. To streamline project development, developers, full-service project delivery teams and utilities can request and share early due-diligence studies, including Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessments, wetland delineations, and cultural resource studies that have already been conducted. These studies can call attention to environmental concerns that may impact permitting while also identifying unanticipated design criteria. While sharing information is beneficial, it is important for the EPC team to independently verify the findings of these reports.
- Understand the project site. The BESS project site can significantly influence the permitting and design process. Determining whether the site is within a flood plain is crucial, because of the lengthy process obtaining a flood plain use permit. A project located in a flood plain will also have additional civil design considerations. Furthermore, understanding local, county and state erosion control requirements is critical for civil design and cost estimation. BESS facilities are often situated close to centers with high demand for power, to help minimize transmission and distribution losses. This typically leads to BESS facilities being placed within city limits or the extraterritorial jurisdictions.
- Identify all ancillary project elements. Understanding all components of a BESS project, and sharing that information with the permitting team, is another step to expedite permitting and successful project execution. Typically, AHJ prefer to permit all elements of a project simultaneously. In the case of BESS projects, developers and EPC teams would be familiar with switchyards, and generation tie lines, which are common additions to new BESS installations. These components can introduce complexities, even for thoughtful and detailed permitting plans.
If a BESS project is located in city limits, the utility, asset owner or EPC firm may contend with strict zoning requirements. This might necessitate pursuing an engineering variance or conditional use permit, with the latter typically requiring approval from the city council. The city council has the authority to deny a conditional use permit and may pursue this option if a significant majority of the community is concerned about the project. Furthermore, if the local zoning laws prohibit specific types of construction or specific building types, the utility or developer may need to seek a variance or identify a new site for the BESS.
Understanding the various challenges, opportunities and tasks required to execute a BESS project is helpful, but to effectively execute a project it is beneficial to maintain proper documentation and thorough checklists. Importantly, focusing attention on permitting requirements and establishing relationships with local plan reviewers can yield optimal results for new systems. Engineers, utility professionals and asset owners who learn about specific project requirements early in the design phase can streamline the permitting process and eliminate future headaches. Finally, establishing a positive relationship between the design firm, the energy provider and the authority having jurisdiction is the most important step to successfully executing a BESS project.
An integrated EPC team can drive predictable results for renewable energy generation projects by managing all aspects, from development to construction and startup. Learn how an EPC team can execute BESS projects to provide reliable energy service regardless of weather conditions.