Three steps to reduce battery storage fire risk

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High-profile lithium-ion battery fires have given rise to growing concerns regarding their safety and exposed a lack of understanding about the risks associated with this type of technology. Specifically, fire incidents in battery energy storage systems (BESS) have proved to be harmful to the industry, resulting in postponement and even cancellation of projects in some parts of the world.

A new report released by Firetrace International, a US-based fire suppression technology supplier, says that “there is a real danger public opposition to energy storage could grow significantly as a result of fire risk fears, threatening critical battery deployment and, as a result, net zero goals.”

What is more, BESS fire incidents have also had an impact on the insurance market. In its report, Firetrance presents evidence that the appetite to cover energy storage projects has declined, with some insurers even exiting the market.

“This has resulted in increased premiums, higher excesses, and difficulties in securing 100% cover. Addressing the fire risk of battery storage has thus become a focal point for owners, contractors, and operators,” reads the report titled “How to reduce battery storage fire risk.”

The report looks at different types of fire hazards facing energy storage projects as well as the way in which the industry has already looked to mitigate these risks through planning, design, construction, and the installation of fire protection systems.

In conclusion, the report highlights the three next steps asset manufacturers, developers and asset owners need to take to mitigate the fire risk.

  • Installing water-based fire suppression systems, which are the most effective at cooling a fire in an energy storage system (However, it is important to note here that water-based fire extinguishers can cool down the battery and help prevent the spread of the fire but will not extinguish the fire on the battery until its energy is dissipated.)
  • Including a battery management system to monitor, control, and optimize the performance of an individual or multiple battery modules and to enable disconnection
  • Grouping energy storage units into small segments limited to certain amounts of kWh and spaced from other segments and walls

Some of the main causes that can lead to lithium-ion batteries catching fire are inherent cell defects, improper installation, physical abuse, or operation of BESS outside of prescribed parameters, such as charge rate, state of charge or temperature. Once triggered, battery fires are self-sustaining and difficult to put out.

“There are fire suppression companies who claim their systems can suppress lithium-ion battery fires and prevent thermal runaway,” said Brian Cashion, engineering manager at Firetrace International.

“We don’t believe the industry can make these claims yet because there is no publicly available test data proving these claims in real world test scenarios and doing so risks a second wave of public scrutiny. It is crucial we get the solution right,” Cashion stated.

The US supplier notes that this is “very possible with the right planning, design and collaboration”.

Finally, the report highlights the role of regulation in mitigating BESS fires and recommends changes to the current frameworks in the United States.

According to Firetrance, storage fire risk regulations in the US are developing haphazardly on a state-by-state basis, a scenario that is creating considerable confusion and forcing energy storage owners to retrofit fire suppression systems in order to comply with evolving regulatory frameworks.

The report suggests that other states should adopt the International Fire Code (IFC) in place in New York and California.

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