Patrice Payne has her evacuation plan ready in case of a fire at a planned lithium battery storage unit less than a mile from her house in the Oxon Hill area of Prince George’s County.

She would grab a ladder from her shed, climb over her backyard fence and make a run for the highway through the shrubs. On her way out of the house, she would scoop up two carefully packed bags of medical supplies for her 30-year-old diabetic son. At least that’s the plan.

“I don’t think I’m in shape for jumping over a fence,” said Payne, a Black woman in her early 50s. “But I’d take a few bruises and get away rather than inhaling toxic fumes from the burning lithium battery.”

For almost two years, Payne and other Prince George’s residents have been pushing back against the utility company Pepco’s planned installation of a 1-megawatt energy storage system with a lithium battery component, pointing out that the county and Pepco officials have not addressed their safety concerns in case of an accidental fire or a similar emergency situation.

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Battery storage has gone from the margins of the energy economy to close to its center in the last few years as governments and energy companies view energy storage technologies as essential for the transition away from fossil fuels. Batteries can help to make the grid more reliable by filling in gaps left when wind, solar and other resources aren’t available.

But there are safety concerns about the flammability of lithium-ion batteries.

Part of the worry for Payne is that she lives on a dead-end street. “There’s one way in and one way out and we might not be able to get away in our car in case there was a fire,” Payne said, adding that she could still get hit by a speeding motorist if her plan to get to the highway succeeded.

Working two jobs as a real estate agent and a government employee, Payne said she didn’t know she would be mulling an emergency escape plan when she bought her two-story house about eight years ago.

In a statement, a Pepco representative said that the utility considered several alternate locations during planning of the project and then reevaluated the chosen location after the community members expressed their concerns. The ultimate location for battery storage was selected because the existing substation “is expected to exceed its capacity in 2027 and the battery facility will allow Pepco to defer the need to build a new substation in the area, which helps keep customer rates affordable,” he said.

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The system “exceeds current Prince George’s County and Maryland codes and will help ensure the highest level of safety,” he said, adding that the placement of the battery energy storage system would allow the utility to advance “energy equity for the residents of the surrounding neighborhood.” Local fire and rescue agencies will respond in the event of an emergency such as a fire, the statement said, and “a training program will be established prior to the installation of the system.”

Energy storage systems are rapidly growing. The United States added more gigawatts of battery storage capacity in 2021 than all previous years combined, according to the Energy Information Administration. The agency reported that more than 75 percent of the 20.8 gigawatts of utility-scale battery capacity planned from 2022 to 2025 is located in Texas and California.

The growth continued in 2022 with a 25 percent increase from the prior year. BloombergNEF projects that global energy storage installations will soar from a cumulative 27 gigawatts globally in 2021 to 411 gigawatts by the end of 2030, with China and the United States poised to be the leaders. This growth reflects an increasing reliance on batteries and other storage technologies as countries seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

“Li-ion batteries have the potential to create pressurized explosions within explosion-proof or flameproof battery enclosures,” said the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Hazard in its research brief on dealing with battery fires in mining operations. “Emergency responders need to understand the characteristics of lithium-ion battery fires and appropriate suppression agents.”

In April 2019, a lithium-ion battery storage facility in Arizona caught fire and exploded, severely injuring four career firefighters trained in dealing with hazardous materials. A 2020 investigation found an internal failure in one of the lithium battery cells that caused all the batteries to fail and led to an explosion. It pointed out that the emergency response plan did not have an “extinguishing, ventilation, and entry procedure,” which set the conditions for the explosion and the resulting injuries sustained by the firefighters.

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In April 2022, the same facility experienced another fire in the battery storage unit after the manufacturer said the problem was rectified. Nearby businesses were asked to evacuate as the smoldering continued for nearly two weeks. The fire safety experts, learning from the previous experience, opted to allow the fire to burn itself out. A similar fire incident at a battery storage facility in California last September caused a day-long shelter-in-place advisory for the entire nearby community.

For Payne, incidents like these and what she considered inadequate communication from the county and Pepco officials led her to research and draw up her own evacuation plan. “I’m not against the new energy systems and all of that. I just don’t think it should be in our neighborhood,” she said.

The project, which is the first of its kind in the county, is next to mostly minority communities and is within a short distance from a day care and schools. The community advocates said they are still waiting for the county and Pepco officials to say whether emergency plans have been drawn up, including training for the local firefighters to deal with an accident involving large lithium batteries.

Battery storage projects are becoming increasingly larger in capacity, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in December 2022. The agency said that the 409 megawatt Manatee Energy Storage in Florida was the largest battery storage project operating in the country at the time. Developers have scheduled more than 23 large-scale battery projects, ranging from 250 megawatts to 650 megawatts, to be deployed by 2025, the agency said.

Lack of Transparency Fuels Anxiety

Dr. Ofodike Ozekoye, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who oversaw grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security to study battery storage system failures, said he detects “a gap in communication between Pepco and the communities neighboring Oxon Hill, and it’s not clear what Pepco has done in terms of in terms of hazard mitigation analysis.”

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As batteries fail, they yield highly flammable gases that can be explosive, and the engineering to mitigate those explosions becomes an important issue, Ozekoye said, adding that local fire departments will need specialized training with an active community response component.

Pepco should have addressed the residents’ safety concerns by communicating specifically what measures it plans to put in place to mitigate a hazardous situation, Ozekoye said, so that the community can then engage a third-party to assess the quality of those plans to make themselves feel more comfortable about what the issues are.

“I think they should be absolutely transparent about what their assumptions were and what their calculations showed, and that way the community can share it with experts and say, ‘Hey, does this seem reasonable?’” he said. “But it seems the lack of communication is fueling the anxiety in the community.”

Despite those risks, Bill Shobe, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, said the battery systems can provide real benefits. “Batteries can replace the function of a gas turbine because it can provide the immediate response that smoothes the supply of power from increasing percentages of renewables on the grid,” he said.

Shobe said that utility companies can have deeper penetration of non-emitting renewables if they add batteries to the mix, adding that the batteries that are based on lithium chemistry are usually designed to run for about four hours.

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“It is important to understand that many of the communities that are exposed to additional amounts of pollution are the ones who received the benefits from the addition of such batteries. So there are benefits. But whether it’s the right place for them to be placed is another question worthy of looking into,” Shobe said.

Alan Doubleday, director of public information with Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, said in a statement that fire officials have discussed “implementation of a training plan” with Pepco, but a start date has yet to be agreed upon.

Doubleday said that the department is actively developing strategies to mitigate lithium-ion storage facility emergencies and continues to work with Pepco and other partners to identify any community risks.

The county fire department’s regional command officer and battalion chief participate in the community association meetings as well as meetings hosted by Pepco, Doubleday said, but added that there haven’t been meetings since December.

In an August 2022 letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission, County Council member Edward Burroughs, who represented the impacted communities, said the utility had ignored residents’ concerns about the safety, environmental justice and transparency of the project.

The letter said that the fire department was ill-equipped to deal with the explosion of lithium batteries and contain chemical air pollution, and that the communities were first informed about the battery storage unit in December 2021.

“This is a troubling issue that deeply concerns the constituents who have stated they do not want this pilot battery storage in their neighborhoods in proximity to where they live, work and play. Their safety should be everyone’s priority,” Burroughs said.

Separately, former Maryland comptroller Peter Franchot, in a March 2022 letter to the PSC, said that the health and safety concerns that residents have voiced for years deserve to be heard and addressed.

“[T]he research remains inconclusive on the safety, environmental, and health impacts of this clean energy technology, especially when such a facility is built near residential or high-traffic communities,” Franchot said. “As the residents and businesses who will be directly impacted by this project — none of whom will directly benefit from the energy stored at this facility — it would be unconscionable for this project to proceed until the concerns have been adequately addressed.”

The letter asked the Public Service Commission to examine the project more closely and hear the concerns from residents and communities impacted by this proposed facility.

In a written response, Tori Leonard, the PSC’s communications director, shared the language from the commission’s November 2020 order, which approved the battery storage projects proposed by Pepco and other Exelon companies: “Utility-scale battery storage comes with risks both in terms of safety and environmental contamination. As a condition of approval, the utilities are directed to file, by Feb. 1, 2021, plans for preventing and addressing fires and explosions, for safe removal of damaged batteries, and for decommissioning and disposal of batteries.”

She said that the commission approved the plans submitted by the utilities for preventing and addressing fires and explosions and for safe removal, decommissioning and disposal of batteries.

The Office of People’s Counsel (OPC) representative Joseph Cleaver, responding to the residents’ concern over the lack of a public comment and hearing process, said in a June 2022 email that the complaints warranted further consideration and action.

“As for Maryland OPC’s involvement, the issues of public comment hearings and siting surrounding storage projects, while very important, are not issues that we can take up at this time,” Cleaver wrote. “Due to resource limitations, our office is not in a position to take the lead on these issues before the commission or the General Assembly.”

Missed Targets Add to Community Suspicions

The PSC established the battery storage pilot program in 2019 after state legislation required investor-owned utilities to construct battery storage projects. The law makes it mandatory for the commission to evaluate the program and submit an interim report to the Maryland General Assembly by July 1, 2024, and a final report by Dec. 31, 2026.

Since obtaining approval in November 2020, Pepco has failed repeatedly to begin operations at the battery storage facility, despite multiple extensions granted by the commission. It has requested that the commission move the project completion date to June 30, 2024.

The company blamed the project contractor as the main reason behind repeated delays. Pepco acknowledged that the contractor, A.F. Mensah, whose services it acquired to build the battery storage facility, had failed to maintain good standing status in Maryland. A.F. Mensa did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Prince George’s Department of Permitting, Inspection and Enforcement confirmed that applications have been submitted for building and grading permits, but neither permit has been issued. “For the building permit, we are waiting for the applicant to submit plans and the grading plan is under review,” she said.

On March 22, the PSC approved an extension of the operational deadline for the Pepco project, Leonard confirmed.

“As noted in Pepco’s request, the extension was necessary due to issues with the utility’s vendor. I would point out that no person or party objected to the extension of the project,” she said.

Under the original Pepco plan, A.F. Mensah was supposed to monitor the day-to-day operations of the lithium battery storage facility after its completion.

“Pepco is evaluating replacement vendors and has not reached a final determination. We are incorporating learnings from this and similar completed and underway projects in our decision making,” a Pepco representative said in an emailed response. “Details will be provided soon to the Community Advisory Group and more broadly to community members interested in this project.”

Pamela Monroe, a resident turned community activist, cited numerous issues with the project. “The revelation that the contractor PEPCO hired for this project was not in good standing with the State of Maryland is another reason for neighbors to be concerned about this project being put in our neighborhood,” she said.

Monroe said it upsets her to see that county and state officials seemed to be interested only in checking the boxes to keep this energy storage project on the books, with little regard for the impact on residents living near it.

“Given that it’s an untested technology and there are concerns over lithium-ion battery fires, many states and cities like California, West Virginia, Arizona, to name a few, have put these projects on hold. So, why is Maryland and Prince George’s County so eager to move forward?” she said.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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