IFSJ Exclusive: Protecting energy storage from fire risk

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Kristoffer Eldin, Managing Director for Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection’s Energy Storage Protection division, explores new risks and ensuring a global green future

With government leaders pushing towards ambitious sustainability targets, the global energy storage market continues to grow rapidly. Globally, it is estimated an additional 387GW/1, 143GWh of energy storage capacity is needed to meet rising demand before 2030. That is more than Japan’s entire capacity for 2020. China and the US are still leading the way, but Europe is soon set for a significant ramp up in the aftermath of the energy crisis. 

However, with more energy stored, more batteries are regularly being used to higher capacities. This brings about key fire risks, and many customers are seeking stronger assurance on fire safety as the market continues to grow.

Clean energy

With a growing volume of conversations around carbon emissions, governments around the world are continuing to push ambitious environmental agendas. A key part of this is the global shift to net zero emissions by 2050.

To achieve net zero, it is estimated the annual clean energy investment will need to more than triple before 2030 – to around $4t. Inevitably, this is placing intense pressure on energy storage, and as a result, global reliance on electricity is skyrocketing.

The resulting ‘electrification’ – both domestically and commercially – is undoubtedly having a positive impact on global carbon emissions. However, it is also seeing the number of batteries (predominately lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries) used to store and distribute energy increase. This brings about new fire risks, which are realised through many recent battery fires at energy storage facilities.

Unpicking the risks

When it comes to increasing energy storage capacity with li-ion batteries, the primary risk is thermal runaway.

Thermal runaway is a process that can initiate due to a malfunction in the battery cells. That malfunction can be as a result of physical damage, overcharging, overvoltage, mechanical failure or overheating, for example.

In thermal runaway, a battery will be subject to extreme temperature increases, which causes the battery to release additional energy, leading to further temperature increases. If rapid temperature increases are not controlled quickly, thermal runaway is likely to progress, putting the battery at risk of fire, toxic gas emissions and large explosions.

In energy storage facilities, where batteries are often stored in close proximity to one another, the risk is much greater, as thermal runaway can spread between batteries, amplifying the safety consequences.

A distinct lack of regulation

Unfortunately, there is a lag in government regulation when it comes to energy storage facilities. With the electrification movement still in relatively early stages, best practice safety measures are still being debated, with government and insurer discussions and outcomes yet to be shared widely across the market.

There are some optional standards, but these are yet to be mandated or globalised. As a result, the decision all too often is coming down to price – with facilities often opting for cheaper solutions, or no solution at all. In the short term, this can save money, however in the longer-term, at the expense of having a system that is not fit for purpose, there is a clear trade off in costs. The cost of the risk – once realised – will often far exceed the cost associated with installing an effective system at the beginning.

Handle with care

With electricity being used in so many applications, there is an increasing presence of scrap batteries in household and business waste streams. Batteries are also becoming increasingly prevalent in manufacturing processes, and scrap batteries can be present in a larger scale here.

As li-ion batteries can produce their own source of oxygen when in thermal runaway, they can self-sustain a fire from within, making suppression using traditional means particularly challenging.

To suppress thermal runaway risk sustainably, extensive research – conducted by Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection and Research Institutes of Sweden – reveals that an early fire warning system, supported by spot cooling is the most effective solution. This detects potential battery failure before temperatures rise, halting thermal runaway from progressing.

With a system built inside the energy rack, temperatures are able to be controlled from the inside before sharp rises, containing risk and minimising safety consequences.

Inevitably, as sustainable energy demand continues to grow, the risks associated with li-ion batteries are only going to become more prevalent. Yes, switching to sustainable energy is crucial for our environment, but doing so safely is critical.

This article was originally published in the April edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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