Renewable group discuss solar battery safety

The outside of a battery storage testing ground in Louisville, Kentucky. (Contributed)

Electricity has been stored in batteries for centuries. American scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin is credited with coining the term “battery” in 1749, during his experiments with electricity.

While people use batteries every day, the thought of a lithium-ion battery big enough to be placed in what looks like an ocean shipping container may be worrisome.

The proposed utility-scale Ridge View Solar Center in Hartland could rely on those humongous batteries and that's a primary point of contention for opponents who have cited horror stories involving the batteries. One story involves an explosion at a solar energy generation site in Arizona in April 2019.

It should be noted, according to two experts in the field, that while incidents have occurred, they are not likely and can be prevented by training local firefighters in ESS safety. 

During the Arizona incident, a battery site caught fire due to a possible grounding issue, or possibly, a defective battery cell. The exact cause is not known, but what is known is the container started smoking, and while the fire was put out by the battery container’s own system, the amount of heat combined with the gases let off by the over-heated lithium-ion batteries, created a condition where the storage container could explode. The final ingredient was oxygen, which was supplied when the fire department inserted a thermal detector while planning to open the container. The explosion caused injuries to firefighters.

“It’s worth pointing out that there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of these systems deployed around the globe,” said Nick Warner, founding principal of Energy Storage Response Group. ESRG works with manufacturers, as well as code officials, firefighters and insurance companies on ESS, the abbreviation for "Energy Storage Systems," or, simply, batteries.

Warner believes millions of battery systems will be deployed within five years, with or without renewable energy. He was referred to the Union-Sun & Journal by Kevin Campbell of EDF Renewables, the company that is trying to bring the utility scale Ridge View Solar Center to the towns of Hartland and Newfane.

The US&J reached out independently to Brian O’Connor, who works for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a non-profit dedicated to reducing the risk of fire and its repercussions through training and educational resources.

O’Connor said he believes that with proper testing of equipment, and plans in place in the event of a fire, the risks of ESS can be navigated.

“Are they dangerous? They can be. If they’re installed incorrectly. If they’re manufactured incorrectly. If things are done wrong, yes, but I think ... with the correct oversight, if the fire marshal is a part of their installation, they can make sure that the firefighters in the area know what they’re doing," he said.

For solar and wind energy production facilities, ESS are incredibly useful, and they're not inherently unsafe, according to O'Connor.

“'Unsafe' is an unspecified term; everything has a little risk to it,” he said. “There have been some incidents even in the past 10 years, and that’s what NFPA is trying to prevent.”

Warner said that what happened in Arizona was predicted by the fire safety side of the industry two years prior, but not everyone was on the same page.

“This shouldn’t have happened, but that information had not permeated the industry as a whole. It had not been widely adopted,” he said. “Within safety cultures people were still downplaying the necessity of training (for) the fire department by subject matter experts.”

Warner said the industry has since made gains in making information available for first responders in areas where Energy Storage systems are in use.

O’Connor sees the Arizona incident as a focal point for researchers seeking information to prevent it happening again, but noted there have been other incidents, citing a 2012 fire at a Maine wind farm where energy was stored in lead-acid batteries.

“The first responders showed up, (but) they didn’t really know what to do. There were no published tactics or recommendations for how firefighters are supposed to respond when they show up to these things,” he said. “You think, ‘It’s electricity, so don’t put water on it,’ but after some research, we have found out that water is the best suppressant you want to be using on these energy storage systems.”

O’Connor said NFPA is dedicated to “bringing everybody to the table” to write rules that everyone can be happy with.

“We need to know more information,” he said. “While I’m sure Tesla has done tests with its solar lithium batteries, they’re not going to publish that because that would give their competition the leg up, as well. We’re trying to conduct these tests so we can say, ‘We paid for these,’ and show them to everyone. … The more data out there, it helps the entire industry. … We are definitely going in the right direction.”

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