Henderson Municipal Power and Light General Manager Brad Bickett said Tuesday night at a Henderson-Henderson County Joint Planning Commission meeting that he disagrees with a proposed zoning requirement that battery energy storage systems be placed only in areas zoned for heavy industrial use, which require a 100-foot distance to residential areas.
Instead, Bickett said a light industrial zoning, which requires a 50-foot setback to residential areas, is appropriate.
Bickett said HMP&L has put out requests for proposals to companies to place a battery energy storage system near Substation #7 on South Green Street. At the meeting Tuesday night, Bickett said a required heavy industrial zoning at that site would “derail” the project.
But in a phone interview a few days later, he said that the project could proceed with a 100-foot setback, but not many more feet than that.
Henderson officials, including City Attorney Dawn Kelsey who presented the proposed ordinance to the Planning Commission Tuesday night, said requiring a heavy industrial zoning for battery storage sites is all about safety.
City officials are concerned about reported fires, some massive, that have occurred at utility-size battery energy storage systems across the country. These are called thermal runaways and are caused when batteries inside the compartments of a storage system overheat.
Chemical reactions within the batteries hasten the blaze, and officials who’ve dealt with these say that spraying with water won’t put out the fire, said Matt Anderson, a division chief at the Henderson Fire Department. He said these experts advise to let the fire burn itself out.
The joint planning commission Tuesday night voted in favor of a recommendation that required these battery energy storage systems to be placed in heavy industrial-zoned sites.
The recommendation now goes to the Henderson City Commission, which will hear a first reading of the ordinance in the future.
The planning commission does not approve zoning ordinances, but instead votes on recommendations that are then forwarded to city and county government, bodies that choose to follow or not follow those recommendations.
In comments to the planning commission before the vote, Bickett said getting the battery storage system in this location would allow customers to see a “significant savings” in cost.
“We need to be able to provide the right resources for our customers,” he said.
He said there is currently newer technology that is much safer than those systems that caused thermal runaway events. The technology that HMP&L seeks, Bickett said, involves lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are much safer than the batteries of other systems that have caused thermal runaway events.
Kelsey agreed that there are newer, safer technologies being introduced to the market, but she and other city officials who discussed this believe that a heavy industrial zoning requirement is the best solution to start. She said when officials better understand all the implications and when the technology continues to improve, the ordinance could be amended to a light industrial zoning ordinance.
Additionally, as city officials waded through all the information—and all of it new—they pondered not allowing battery energy storage systems to be placed in the city.
“We have had a serious discussion between staff whether we should do a moratorium on these or not,” Kelsey said. “In the end, we felt that we should go forward on (writing a zoning ordinance).”
Furthermore, later in the meeting, Kelsey said if no ordinance is put in place, fire officials are prepared to ask the city commission to impose a moratorium on battery energy storage systems. Anderson agreed that was the case.
Anderson said there had been 11 incidents of thermal runaway events in 2023 in the country. Since 2017, he said his research showed there have been 65.
The ordinance includes two tiers. Tier 1 sets out parameters for smaller energy systems that use less than 600 kWh.
Tier 2 includes sites that hold more than 600 kWh. Tuesday evening’s discussions centered around these utility-size installations.
A map of Substation #7, located near the intersection of South Green Street and Old Corydon Road, shows that there are at least eight nearby residences.
Bickett said that the proposed battery energy storage system, with its safer technology, “presents no greater risk than the substation that exists there today—mainly the transformers.”
The ordinance includes requirements for 24-hour monitoring, underground electrical lines and circuitry, lighting, screening, and a full decommissioning plan, which includes bonding. It also requires a bevy of plan approvals as well as meeting fire, mechanical and electrical codes.
The local battery energy storage systems ordinance would be the first in the state of Kentucky, said Jennifer Marks, assistant director of the joint planning commission.
“We are trailblazing here,” Marks said.