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Battery energy storage system hazards

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Mukesh Chatter is CEO and Co-Founder of Alsym Energy, explains why collaborative strategies and alternative battery solutions are vital for improving safety

Recent fire incidents have spurred debates on the viability of deploying lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery systems in cities and suburbs.

From New York to California, battery failures and fire events have underscored the need for comprehensive strategies to ensure first responder and public safety regarding battery energy storage systems (BESSs) that store and distribute power to the electric grid.

Despite contributing to cleaner energy transitions, battery systems using Li-ion technology are uniquely susceptible to extreme weather.

Lightning strikes, heavy rain, wildfires and other events associated with a changing climate can all cause systems equipped with Li-ion batteries to malfunction, potentially leading to toxic gas emissions and even fires.

As more localities begin to consider new grid storage installations, it’s increasingly important for officials to understand the potential risks that Li-ion systems pose and educate themselves on alternative technologies that have emerged in the past few years.

This can include enacting more stringent permitting and safety measures, increasing first responder training, and consulting with outside experts.

Recent fires in New York State

The summer of 2023 has been a wake-up call to the hazards presented by lithium-ion battery storage systems—even those built and installed by reputable companies.

In recent months, New York experienced a series of BESS incidents that have raised concerns about their safety:

  1. Town of East Hampton – May 31: A 5 MW facility caught fire, resulting in road closures and disruptions to local transportation services.
  2. Town of Warwick – June 26: Two facilities (one on a school campus) caught fire, leading to an evacuation order within a ¼ mile radius of the school.
    These incidents coincided with a large storm, which experts believe contributed to the system’s failure.
    Both systems had gone online only a month prior.
  3. Town of Lyme – July 27: A fire broke out at the 20 MW Lyme BESS facility, which had only gone online in March 2022.
    The fire was a significant concern for residents due to potential air quality and water contamination issues.

These events have ignited an urgency to act, prompting discussions of “what-ifs” and the immediate need for improved safety protocols, highlighting the vulnerability of energy storage systems to external factors and weather.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul has convened an Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group in response to these incidents in her state to evaluate and address storage system safety concerns.

The collaboration between state agencies, first responders, and local leaders underlines the commitment to devising strategies that enhance the safety of energy storage systems.

Considering recent developments, the Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group should consider allocating time to investigate safer battery alternatives — excluding lithium-ion — that are more suitable for urbanised areas to ensure public safety is not compromised.

As the Working Group takes shape, its efforts promise to deliver improved safety guidelines and strategies, bolstering resilience against increasing BESS threats in a changing climate.

Enhancing battery energy storage safety through expert guidelines

The American Clean Power Association (ACP) has also taken steps toward improving energy storage safety by publishing a new guide that can help first responders navigate the complexities of battery storage safety incidents, especially considering that many are not properly trained or equipped to handle these incidents when they occur.

Focusing on BESS-scale fire incidents, the ACP guide emphasises equipping first responders with knowledge and tools to manage potential endangerments effectively.

It underscores pre-incident planning, informed by UL 9540A testing, and highlights hazard mitigation analysis (HMA) and robust emergency response plans (ERP) for swift action.

A crucial point that the guide stresses is the importance of granting first responders adequate access to battery management system (BMS) data, which enables them to make informed decisions during critical moments and provides them with proper training to decrease risk and protect populations.

The ACP guide enhances safety measures in the dynamic energy storage landscape through these principles–a significant stride toward fortified community protection.

A call to collaborative action

The call for heightened awareness and proactive planning is gaining momentum, not only because of public safety concerns but because battery storage systems have an incredibly important job for an electric grid that’s transitioning.

Recognising that this conversation extends far beyond a single entity or technology is crucial.

Governor Hochul’s action to convene the New York Inter-Agency Fire Safety Working Group is a critical step forward in bringing together stakeholders to address the comprehensive safety enhancement needed in the face of evolving challenges.

Subject matter experts can collaborate to better understand how to prevent, triage, and quickly remediate BESS incidents, helping minimise interruptions to the energy system.

Knowledge-sharing, the exchange of best practices, and close collaboration between federal, state, and municipal authorities will be the cornerstones of effective risk mitigation in this context.

Leaders must translate the urgent concerns raised by incidents like the recent NY fires into actionable measures that prioritise the welfare of the public and responders alike but also make space for the important role that BESS deployments play.

As communities such as South Hampton, NY enact moratoria on new BESS projects, the imperative for safer, alternative battery chemistries becomes even more pronounced.

Leaders can adopt a proactive approach by exploring and integrating safer battery technologies that can pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.

The safety of urbanised areas and the stability of our power grids hinge upon a commitment to learning, adapting, and implementing enhanced preventative measures.

Industry leaders can protect our communities and build a resilient energy future by drawing from recent incidents, expert guidance, and collaborative efforts to find safer battery solutions that contribute to the steadiness of power during challenging times.

About the author

Mukesh Chatter is CEO and Co-Founder of Alsym Energy, a technology company developing a low-cost, high-performance rechargeable battery chemistry that is free of lithium and cobalt.

This article was originally published in the December2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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