As the U.S. electric grid is transforming and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar play an increasingly important role in electricity production.
energy storage systems have emerged as an ideal alternative. Batteries Energy storage systems store electricity and deliver it to the grid during times of low wind and sunlight or during periods of peak electricity demand.
In addition to supporting renewable energy generation facilities to provide power, battery storage systems are being used to keep the lights on.
Rotating blackouts and prolonged power outages are becoming more common in the United States amidst extreme weather, forest fires, and aging grid infrastructure.
Energy storage systems play a key role in making the grid more resilient to these power failures.
While energy storage systems have become an important part of the grid, a number of fires at large battery storage facilities have raised safety concerns about battery storage systems.
Failure to address this safety issue will not only hinder the growth of the energy storage industry and slow the transition to net zero goals, but will also expose people to the threat of power outages and restrictions. So, what steps does the battery storage industry need to take to reduce the risk of fires?
Comments on fire safety in the battery storage industry are often limited to one key challenge: thermal runaway of batteries. Thermal runaway is a phenomenon in which a battery generates heat faster than it can dissipate it. While the topic of thermal runaway of batteries dominates the conversation, the reality is much more complex.
Energy storage systems kind of are complex systems that require broader systems-level thinking. When engineers consider where the fire risk comes from, they typically take a macro view of the problem, which includes the human and environmental factors that present a significant fire risk.
This clarity goes beyond a focus on thermal runaway issues and is therefore a fundamental reason why the battery storage industry needs to be allowed to address fire risk.
In turn, engineers are designing more robust safety features for battery storage systems to address a wider range of risks.
Develop fire safety standards and tests
This expanded focus is reflected in the development of new fire safety standards governing the energy storage industry.
Energy storage suppliers seek to obtain safety certifications to give customers confidence that the battery storage systems they are purchasing comply with industry best practices.
To date, core standards and test methods (including the UL9540 standard and UL9540A standard) have focused primarily on the thermal runaway risk of a single battery.
However, recent industry practice has shifted the focus to broader energy storage fire testing and is no longer limited to testing a single battery for thermal runaway, thus requiring battery storage manufacturers to test multiple batteries for thermal runaway.
In 2023, it is likely that we will see more efforts to enhance this broader systems-level thinking.
For example, there is a growing need for heat flux analysis and a focus on the impact of blast protection systems on fire dynamics and spread propagation.
Parallel to the product standards, relevant fire codes are being developed to cover the entire life cycle of an energy storage system, including everything from design, construction, balance of plant and commissioning to operation, maintenance and decommissioning.
These fire codes require compliance with many other standards, including electrical safety (NFPA 70/NEC), alarm and detection (NFPA 72), fire suppression (NFPA 13 and NFPA 15), and explosion protection (NFPA 68 and NFPA 69).
Exceeds mandatory requirements
Meeting and exceeding fire safety standards requires rigorous testing, sometimes to the point of intentionally igniting batteries within a battery storage system.
Conducting these tests can provide manufacturers, emergency responders and energy storage asset owners with important information about how a battery storage system will react in the highly unlikely event of a catastrophic failure. To get the most accurate results, energy storage providers should complete worst-case field tests, not calculations or simulations.
Some energy storage manufacturers also choose to complete testing beyond the mandatory requirements to provide additional assurance to customers and stakeholders that the energy storage system is safe.
The industry’s model fire codes (IFC and NFPA 855 and their adopted state codes) require testing to UL 9540A, but safety-conscious energy storage manufacturers have expanded their testing beyond a focus on thermal runaway.
In some cases, they are also attempting to verify that battery storage systems are equipped with explosion-proof systems through full-scale testing.
Work with regulators and emergency responders
The energy storage industry is also increasing its communication with local regulatory agencies responsible for enforcing safety regulations.
In many cases, some regulator officials feel they do not have enough information about the causes and effects of fires in energy storage systems, let alone provide solutions.
Energy storage providers are working with nonprofits and trade organizations to standardize best practices and disseminate knowledge to regulatory agencies everywhere.
Similarly, energy storage system providers need to work with fire departments, subject matter experts and first responders to host training on emergency preparedness.
Energy storage industry needs to focus on fire safety
If the U.S. is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and increase the resilience of the grid, it will need to deploy 100GW of energy storage systems in less than 10 years. As energy storage systems proliferate.
more battery storage systems will be seen deployed in urban areas and highly populated communities, making fire safety an even higher priority.
By clarifying the challenges facing the energy storage industry, developing fire safety standards, and working more closely with regulators, the energy storage industry can address safety issues, streamline project development, and ensure that the grid is supported by battery storage systems.