Australian battery company executives are hot under the collar about proposed new fire safety standards for the installation of lithium-based batteries.
The Australian battery industry is growing rapidly, with global companies such as Tesla, Panasonic, Sonnen and Enphase active in the market, as well as Redflow, an Australian company that has delivered the world’s smallest zinc-bromine flow battery.
With Australian battery installations growing from 500 in 2015 to 6750 last year, the lack of formal standards for in-home battery installations stirred concerns that surging demand could create a “Wild West” environment where batteries might be deployed without regard for safety.
Pink batts fiasco
This fear arose from the “Pink Batts Fiasco” of 2009, when government-subsidized home insulation caused an enormous surge in demand for these products, leading to unsupervised installations, four deaths through electrocution and hundreds of house fires.
To address this concern, Standards Australia, a non-government, not-for-profit organisation responsible for the development and adoption of standards in Australia, earlier this year developed a draft industry standard for installing batteries.
With no international electrical installation standards for home energy storage systems, the draft was developed by Australian and New Zealand stakeholders who share a common regulatory and technical standards framework.
This draft standard followed Clean Energy Council industry rules issued last year, which state: “Some lithium-based batteries can fail due to internal overheating, in a process known as ‘thermal runaway’. The normal chemical reactions within the battery during charging are exothermic (heat-generating).
“If this heat is not able to dissipate, or the battery is overcharged for a long duration, the rate of chemical reaction can then speed up, which in turn increases the battery temperature further, in an increasing cycle until the battery is physically damaged ... Once this happens, there is a risk of fire and/or rupture of the battery, with emission of toxic material.”
However, Standards Australia suffered a battery industry backlash even before the draft standard was released, when word got around that installing lithium-ion batteries would require housing in standalone enclosures, dubbed “battery bunkers”.
Many battery companies criticized the safety regulations as “overkill” that would retard the nascent industry before it got started by adding thousands of dollars to the cost of installing batteries.
This led experts from industry and government, along with community interests, to collaborate on the draft standard, delaying its release until mid-year. Standards Australia said the published draft standard sought to appropriately balance the benefits of emergent technology with community safety expectations.
Lithium-ion deemed a hazard
The final draft standard classifies lithium-ion batteries as “fire hazard class 1”, banned from installation inside a domestic dwelling, within three feet of any access or egress area or under any part of a domestic dwelling.
As a result, many in the battery industry remain unhappy.
Leading European battery company Sonnen has dubbed the attitude of classifying all lithium-based batteries as dangerous as "a ridiculous over-reaction".
Sonnen's technical manager in Australia and New Zealand James Sturch said the proposed standard would be “an enormous discouragement in terms of additional cost, effort and lack of access”. He said Sonnen had installed 30,000 systems holding 100,000 battery modules worldwide without a fire in any of them.
Mr. Sturch said Sonnen’s lithium iron phosphate chemistry was different from the lithium-ion chemistries used in mobile phones and hoverboards, which had caught fire in some cases. “Standards Australia is lumping them all together as if they contain the same chemistries as volatile batteries used in laptops, e-bikes and some mobile phones,” he said.
Redflow is one battery company that has commended Standards Australia’s “safety first” attitude to deploying lithium-based batteries.
Redflow CEO Simon Hackett said the safety-first principle should be a priority for the rapidly growing energy storage industry. "Even if a battery does not cause a fire directly, a poorly chosen or deployed battery system may act as an accelerant in an ordinary house fire with potentially disastrous consequences for both residents and first defenders,” he said.
“We welcome this emphasis on ensuring that all batteries are deployed in a way to minimise their fire risk. It is important that all battery standards are designed around the understanding that there are multiple types of battery, each with a separate risk profile.”
There are now multiple varieties of lithium-derived battery chemistries and each has a different risk profile when it comes to fire safety. This drives an argument for segmenting battery types in terms of installation standards in a relatively granular manner.
The Australian-designed ZCell zinc-bromine flow battery uses a quite different energy storage technology and operates very differently from conventional batteries. It is inherently non-flammable, with a bromine-based electrolyte, lower ‘worst case’ energy output in the presence of a short circuit elsewhere in the energy system and a system controller with built in environmental monitoring that will autonomously intervene to disconnect the battery and halt internal chemical reactions if required.
Written by Andrew Kempster, Redflow Global Sales Director