Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 26, 2021.

Power Struggle

Debate continues over whether utility companies should be exempt from the provisions of NFPA 855


One of the most controversial topics during the creation of NFPA 855, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems—and one that persists to this day—is whether the standard’s requirements should apply to ESS owned and operated by utility companies.

Utilities have long maintained that, because they are federally regulated and have their own safety procedures, engineers, and technologies, they should not be subject to outside rules. This idea was vigorously debated at the NFPA technical meeting in 2019 during a proposed amendment aimed at specifically excluding utilities from the scope of NFPA 855. Although membership voted in favor of the exclusion, the standard’s technical committee disagreed and, as a result, an official scope was never published for the standard. The issue remains unresolved, making NFPA 855 perhaps the only NFPA document without an official scope.

The authors of the UL report on the Surprise ESS battery explosion incident argued that this special carve-out for utilities could contribute to unsafe conditions and recommended that NFPA 855 apply to everyone. “It seems that firefighters are going to be responding to ESS that are owned and operated by electrical utilities the same as they are for other entities,” the report’s co-author, Mark McKinnon, told NFPA Journal. “It doesn’t seem like a reasonable carve-out for the electrical utilities.”

Jim Biggins, the chair of the NFPA 855 technical committee, conceded that there may be some rules that utilities can make a legitimate argument against having to follow. But he doesn’t think they should be fully excluded from most of the requirements in NFPA 855. “Realistically, any energy storage system, regardless of who it’s owned by, has the same hazards and it should be treated the same, particularly the areas related to personnel safety and the safety of first responders,” he said. “But there still is disagreement within the committee on that point, and you can see that from the first revision comments to the next edition of the standard.”

The next edition of NFPA 855 is scheduled for release in 2023, meaning it could come up for discussion at the 2022 technical session in Boston. The first revision of the document for the 2023 edition received more than 500 public inputs—many were from utilities requesting more exclusions, Biggins said. “I’m sure as the second revision comments come in, there’ll be more and more discussion,” he added. “And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it go to [a vote on] the floor again next year.”

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor at NFPA Journal. Email him feedback or story ideas at Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES