As energy storage explodes in New York, officials tackle safety measures
The Fire Department of New York is setting procedures to deal with battery storage fires
When smart phone batteries catch fire or laptop batteries explode on airplanes, it makes the news.
So far batteries used to store energy at the residential and commercial level have avoided those headlines. But eventually there will be a problem.
“Battery fires are rare, but when they happen you have to be prepared,” said Lt. Paul Rogers with the Fire Department of New York’s hazardous materials operations division.
Rogers works with a team within FDNY’s hazardous materials operations division, and he has become the point person on energy storage safety issues. “I am a one man show,” he said, operating as a liaison with regulators, researchers and industry.
As the headlines suggest, much of the current safety concerns about batteries revolve around lithium-ion batteries. Those concerns are well founded: Li-ion batteries have a lion’s share of the energy storage market and are the fastest growing storage technology.
Li-ion batteries have become ubiquitous in laptops and smart phones. But batteries used for grid-tied stationary storage applications are quite different than those used in robust, long term use case scenarios such as behind-the-meter applications or on a transmission or distribution system, said William Tokash, a senior research analyst with Navigant Research.
Grid connected batteries have sophisticated software systems that manage the battery during charging and discharging cycles, and they are equipped with thermal control systems and software designed to ensure safe operation, as well as early detection of any operating concerns.
Nonetheless, the rapid growth of energy storage has raised concerns. As a 2014 Department of Energy report noted, most of the safety parameters that are in place for energy storage systems are based on “previous industry knowledge and experience with energy storage for vehicles, as well as experience with grid-scale lead-acid batteries.”
In short, safety issues such as testing and validation, as well as fire prevention and suppression has not evolved as fast as industry has. That could be a hurdle to the expansion of energy storage, unless safety validation techniques are broadened to encompass grid-scale systems, as well as a broader range of stationary storage systems and a much broader range of technologies, the DOE report concludes.
Getting in front of the fire
Rogers is in the forefront of those efforts. As New York began to ramp up its energy storage efforts, Rogers realized that there were not procedures in place to deal with battery fires.
That posed a problem in a densely populated city that in September set a goal of having 100 MWh of energy storage in place by 2020 as part of the city’s effort to cut greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.
Right now New York City’s fire code “is not restrictive,” Rogers said. It doesn’t address what type of suppression system – water, chemical, water with an additive – would be most appropriate to put out a burning li-ion battery. “We are looking at a dry chemical suppressant, but it is not yet clear if that is the way to go,” he said.
The real problem, Rogers noted, is no so much how to put out a li-ion fire, but how a storage system reacts during and after a fire.
One of the problems with using a dry chemical fire suppressant, for example, is that it does not contain the heat that li-ion batteries can produce.