Increasing energy storage adoption calls for battery safety needs in New York
Those two words have become ominous and loaded with implied meaning in recent years. The reasons are many, but they are linked to some basic human psychological factors and preconceptions. The first phenomenon is anchoring. When a human witnesses an event that is unexplained and an explanation is offered, that person anchors that explanation for all related future events, real or perceived. When another event occurs that looks similar, a second psychological phenomena occurs called confirmation bias. Each subsequent event that looks similar will confirm the prior explanation as truth.
Anchoring and confirmation bias are very difficult to overcome, particularly for large, publicly visible issues and events that are covered by the mass media.
Battery safety and battery fires are such events. Every electric vehicle fire confirms biases in the public eye that Li-ion batteries are unsafe. Explanations are not only ignored, but unwanted. Any incident on an airplane that involves a battery will confirm and create similar biases. Unfortunately, each event that reaches the mainstream audience only has about 8 seconds to be explained (are you still reading?). Any explanations that may show the circumstances to be unordinary or extraordinary are simply forgotten or ignored.
The NFPA states that 287,000 car fires occur in the US on average. That is approximately 786 car fires per day. There are also 1.3 million building or structure fires in the US annually. The fact of the matter is that fires are inevitable. Yet media coverage for building fires, car fires, refinery fires, or fuel fires isn’t nearly as dramatic or frequent as it is for battery fires. So why do battery fires get all of the attention?
Here is another fact: liquid fuels such as gasoline and bunker fuel carry an order of magnitude higher energy per unit mass than Li-ion batteries do. Li-ion batteries have 10 times less energy than the fuels we carry in our vehicles every day. So what is missing from this story that makes the confirmed biases so compelling and newsworthy?
The answers to these questions are related to a lack of common knowledge in the public concerning batteries. The nature of the fire, putting out the fire, storing and protecting batteries, and disposing of batteries are not well understood. In contrast, due to the prevalence of gasoline in the modern human world most people understand that gasoline should not be stored in hot places, next to open flame, or in a location where it could be tipped over, impacted, or otherwise abused. Containers are standardized, and most people feel comfortable putting them on a shelf in the garage. Most people know that standing over a gasoline fire and inhaling the smoke is unwise. Everyone understands that gasoline is flammable and it is often involved in fires. There is a general acceptance that anyone who intentionally or accidentally becomes involved in a gasoline fire is… well… playing with fire.
With regard to batteries, fire fighters aren’t concerned about whether there is a fire – the statistics shows this an inevitability – it is the more practical matters of whether their face masks and turnout gear are providing adequate protection, whether the extinguisher they are using is the right one, and how they should keep the fire from spreading. For them, the fire isn’t the issue… it’s managing it. Therefore, some adeptly applied research is needed to address these questions.
DNV GL has been actively testing Li-ion batteries to failure for years and has tested novel sensors to detect thermal runaway before it happens. We’ve provided guidance on the deployment of large format Li-ion batteries in ships for hybrid power applications and is wrapping up a joint industry program (JIP) on remaining barriers in the rules for battery operation and safety in hybrid vessels for the oil & gas sector. We’ve known about gas flammability and toxicity for a long time, and have already investigated the means of managing it. And we are performing frequent failure analyses for customers who need them. With this prior experience, we are honoured to be selected by Consolidated Edison in their investigation of the toxicity, flammability, and extinguishing practices for stationary energy storage systems. 
Supporting New York’s Energy Storage Needs
The purpose of this work is to determine the risks associated with batteries burned during a building fire. Consolidated Edison and its customers are moving ahead with energy storage, and the fire department (FDNY) wants to know what toxicity, flammability, and extinguisher risks they may encounter in the event that a burning building happens to contain a battery system. They want to know not just whether a Class D extinguisher is needed, but why. They want to know if water is the right extinguisher, and if it isn’t, why. And they want to know if they should be looking at different personal protective equipment (PPE) to get ready for this, because energy storage is coming one way or another.
This testing program is not about what batteries do or do not exhibit thermal runaway. And it isn’t about fundamental R&D or waiting for costs to come down or technology to mature. The energy industry is past all that. Energy storage is happening, today, right now. The future grid is here.
This testing program is a proactive effort to dispel the myths, shine a spotlight on the confirmation biases, and let facts and data do the talking. NYSERDA and Con Ed should be commended for taking this on – it is an effort that is long overdue. Thanks to NYSERDA and Con Ed, DNV GL is addressing the battery safety issue right now, today, and will publish all of the results in a public report by the end of 2016 (Stay tuned!). All battery chemistries and manufacturers will benefit from this work, as will utilities project developers, and –most importantly – first responders. Finally, a third party reference will be available that addresses the issues directly to dispel the myths and undermine the confirmation biases and fears that exist today. As Emerson said, do the thing that you fear and the death of fear is certain. Our goal is to put the fears to rest and move forward with the technical matters.
The Final Word on Battery Safety
Battery safety isn’t just about accreditation tests, who has the best battery management system (BMS), who has products susceptible to thermal runaway, or what container is the best, or who has a fire extinguisher deployed in 1000 locations. It isn’t about accreditation, and it isn’t about standards. It’s about getting some straight forward data on a how a battery fire should be managed so the fire fighters – the men and women who enthusiastically and voluntarily walk into fires daily – can do their job effectively and safely. It’s about making rational choices at the project site and designing the system for the site with technical clarity.
Until now the issue of battery safety has been a cluttered topic in the public eye. There are numerous organizations, committees, standards organizations, and working groups having meetings, publishing reports, and even performing tests. The aggregate of these efforts isn’t really helping – nobody knows who is “most correct”. Everyone is pushing their own standard, technology, or agenda. Conflicting claims, manufacturer defensiveness about their technology, and assertions that certain testing must be done without explanations as to why are confusing the public. In 2016, our mission for battery safety is to make best practices for management of battery fires obvious.
This is why we’re excited to lead this effort. In the end, the data will do the talking. And the most relevant standards (DNV GL’s or not) will become apparent when that testing is done. The guidelines that we will publish will draw upon the standards literature that is already available and recommend that accreditation tests be performed that make technical sense. Standards tests should not be performed for the sake of performing standards tests or to meet a checklist. They should be performed to demonstrate technical aptitude and appropriate safety readiness.
There are numerous energy storage safety initiatives underway. The US Department of Energy – Energy Storage Safety Working Group (ESSWG) is consolidating some efforts at a national level, while local New York stakeholder workshops with NFPA and FDNY are being held regularly, and state and national trade organizations such as NY-BEST will coordinate feedback from the greater industry. In addition, DNV GL and its partner Rescue Methods will convene training as part of its deliverables to compliment, support, and focus these efforts to aid its customers, Consolidated Edison and NYSERDA. DNV GL is a member of these other stakeholder groups. This program will inevitably help provide key technical guidance to these efforts.
While there are many standards on battery safety including Li-ion, lead acid, and others, each contributes valuable information to the energy storage safety issue. Much of the information needed to address battery safety for behind the meter applications is available, but it is diffuse, distributed, and in some cases conflicting. We attempted to clarify some of this confusion with our GRIDSTOR Recommended Practice  (DNVGL-RP-0043), which lists many of the relevant standards needed at each stage of energy storage project development. With this guideline, there is a start to aiding authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) with assessing what standards are relevant, when, and why. By the end of 2016, DNV GL will compliment GRIDSTOR with a treasure trove of data to support any standards initiative.
DNV GL is committed to making the world safer, smarter, and greener. It’s not just our tag line. We mean it. Want to know more? Give us a call or shoot us an email. We’re here to help.
Davion Hill, Ph.D. Energy Storage Leader Americas: Davion.M.Hill@dnvgl.com
Nick Warner, Engineer Energy Advisory: Nicholas.Warner@dnvgl.com
Benjamin Gully, Ph.D. Engineer Research and Innovation: Benjamin.Gully@dnvgl.com
Michael Mills-Price, Inverter Testing Lead Energy Advisory: Michael.Mills-Price@dnvgl.com