In response to public concerns over fires, the Solano County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to ban permits for new battery energy storage systems for an emergency period of 45 days. The moratorium could be extended for up to two years while county staff figure out how to regulate them and where they should be built. It applies to unincorporated zones, which makes it a passionate topic in a county that cherishes its prime agricultural land.

The ban is also one example of a local government trying to exert permit authority after a 2022 state law allowed energy system developers the option of obtaining permit certifications directly from the California Energy Commission, thus overriding local governments.

The county’s moratorium would not, and could not, preclude a potential developer from opting into this state process, Allan Calder, Solano County’s planning and program manager, said in an email Tuesday.

“If the CEC approves a project, the ‘opt-in’ certification would be in lieu of any permit required by the county. The legislation does require that any ‘opt-in’ application be forwarded to the county for review and comment,” Calder said.

Battery packs on racks

Battery Energy Storage Systems, or BESS, are composed of hundreds of lithium-ion batteries stacked on racks in cargo containers and placed in neat arrays in a fenced-in area. Wind and solar systems generate electricity all day long. But when the sun sets and the wind settles, these battery storage units keep the power flowing while people cook dinner and run dishwashers.

BESS facilities are a vital component of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push for California to derive 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. They need to be situated somewhere far from people and within reach of PG&E distribution lines, criteria found in a lot of rural areas.

YouTube video
An introduction to Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) and the potential benefits. (The Power Hub/YouTube)

At Tuesday’s meeting, James Bezek, Solano County’s director of resource management, said that in addition to usual public concerns with the aesthetics of the facilities, traffic and operational noise, there is a worry about them catching fire.

“There’s been several recent fires at these facilities,” Bezerk said. “While lithium-ion batteries are inherently safe and stable, there are certain conditions that can elevate the risk of fire.”

The other concern is the contamination of groundwater from fire suppression use to put out any potential fires, and local fire departments may lack proper equipment and training to do that. Bezek described them as “a different type of fire.”

He was referring to a Sept. 18 fire at the Valley Center Energy Storage Facility in San Diego County. It was quickly extinguished by an internal fire prevention system, but shelter-in-place orders were in effect within a half-mile of the site. In 2022, another fire caused a day-long shelter-in-place advisory for the entire community of Moss Landing. A follow-up report on that fire by the Monterey County Health Department found that hydrogen fluoride was one of the gaseous components of concern.

Hydrogen fluoride gas, even at low levels, can irritate the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breathing in hydrogen fluoride at high levels or in combination with skin contact can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or from fluid buildup in the lungs.

“There’s been several recent fires at these facilities. While lithium-ion batteries are inherently safe and stable, there are certain conditions that can elevate the risk of fire.”

James Bezek, Solano County’s director of resource management

A new state law that came into effect Jan. 1, Senate Bill 38, will require BESS facility owners and operators to create emergency response action plans in concert with local agencies.

“Lithium cells can experience thermal runaway which causes them to release very hot flammable, toxic gases,” according to the University of Texas Fire Research Group. “In large storage systems, failure of one lithium cell can cascade to include hundreds of individual cells. The hot flammable gases can result in an explosion, or a very difficult to extinguish fire.”

Who’s in charge of certification?

In a Vacaville City Council meeting on Jan. 11, a community activist group, Keep Vacaville Safe, successfully petitioned for a unanimous vote to reject extending an agreement with Menard Energy, which wanted to build a lithium-ion BESS facility at the city’s former Gibson Canyon Creek wastewater facility. The group cited concerns about fires and fumes. That community action was evoked in public comments at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

“One of the things that we learned that the city staff had been sloppy about, the company that wanted to build the one that we were fighting in Vacaville had no assets in the United States.” said Joe Barrio, a Vacaville resident who protested the Menard agreement.

“They were the subsidy of a European investment company. And so, they’re going to build this facility and make money from it because federal and state money is made available. And once it got built, it really wasn’t going to be their problem, because the first time there was an issue they could just liquidate, and the city was going to be sitting there with this chemical waste dump on their hands,” Barrio said.

The location of Corby Energy's proposed BESS facility on North Meridian Road in Vacaville is highlighted along with an architectural schematic of the project's layout incorporating more than 300 individual storage trailers. If approved, it would be one of the largest BESS facilities in the state, according to Solano County planning officials. (Solano County and Google)

Supervisor John Vasquez noted that the systems were coming from overseas and asked staff to look at where they were coming from and how they’re being built.

“You know what, somebody can certify it in another country,” Vasquez said. “Does it meet the certifications here in this country?”

Certification of BESS facilities present a challenge for local governments like Solano County.

Assembly Bill 205 in 2022 authorized the California Energy Commission, or CEC, to directly certify permits. Any energy storage system capable of storing at least 200 megawatt hours of electricity, that could be built no later than June 30, 2029, and had a minimum capital investment, could opt in for certification directly with the state. CEC certification would work in lieu of any local permits or requirements by other agencies.

Farming energy instead of food

In the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was a local application submitted by Corby Energy Services, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, for a new BESS near the PG&E Vacaville-Dixon substation.

“This facility, if it is approved, would be amongst one of the largest BESS projects in the state,” said Calder. “It is proposed on ‘primary ag land.’”

That means the soil has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for growing food, grazing cattle or other agricultural uses.

The site of the proposed Corby Energy BESS facility on North Meridian Road in Vacaville is currently used for growing tree fruits and is considered prime agricultural land, according to county planners. (Google image)

According to Calder, the project will not be locally approved under the moratorium and the project application can resume processing based on new county requirements written during the hold period. The Corby application was incomplete as of Wednesday.

“If a project already has a permit, this moratorium would not apply to it,” Calder said.

Colby Energy does not currently have a CEC certificate application in process with the state, according to a spokesperson from the California Energy Commission.

Board of Supervisors chair Mitch Mashburn commented that there’s no actual opposition to the facilities themselves, but that they should be sited away from hospitals, residences or schools.

“It’s only in the location of where these facilities are placed,” Mashburn said. “I think that is part of our primary focus.”