Battery Fire Containment and Collaborations for Energy Storage Safety

Ann Nguyen:
Hi there. This is Ann Nguyen, Associate Conference Producer with the Knowledge Foundation. Welcome to this podcast interview for the Lithium Battery Power and Battery Safety conferences, happening this November 17-19 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Today we have Mr. Ronald Butler, CEO of Energy Storage Safety Products International or ESSPI.

Hi, Ron. Thanks so much for your time today.

Ronald Butler:
It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Ann Nguyen:
Among the collaborations the energy storage industry must consider for safety purposes are those with Authorities Having Jurisdiction or AHJ. Can you describe who these authorities are, what they do, and their impact on advancing stationary energy storage technology?

Ronald Butler:
I'd be happy to. Authorities Having Jurisdiction, or AHJs, are the fire marshals, electrical codes professionals, insurance underwriters, risk managers and others in that group. Their job is to make sure that the products that ultimately wind up in buildings, certainly relative to stationary applications, are safe.

We see the energy storage industry in three groups. 1, we consider the industry stakeholders, investors, R&D, battery testing, manufacturing, logistics including transport and storage, and then the integrators including utilities.

Number 2, we see the authorities having jurisdiction that would include again fire marshals, electrical codes professionals, insurance underwriters and risk managers.

3 is probably the most important group. That would be the consumer. And making sure that all of those 3 groups are on the same page is extremely important for commercial success of energy storage systems.

My job at ESSPI is to close the gap between what we consider very promising energy storage products and real commercial success. What we found during our interventions, our work with AHJs, our work with fire departments, our work with the energy storage industry, is that one of the roadblocks preventing commercial success of these technologies is the AHJ.

There's a major city in the United States, which I won't mention, but they have hundreds of battery systems, energy storage systems in the queue waiting for approval by these AHJs. But they're not being approved. One of the reasons is that, certainly in the fire marshals’ case, is that there's a fear factor that hasn't been addressed yet.

The fire marshals don't know exactly how to deal with these things. They have never had to deal with this new technology before. There are no standards to guide them just yet; very few guidelines. They're not sure of the risks that are associated -- if I put one of these on the third floor of a building in a large city, for example. Insurance underwriters, risk managers, all Authorities Having Jurisdictions have the same fears.

We look at a solutions-based approach that we have to set safety standards which will allow for AHJ approval and then will lead to commercial success and consumer confidence. Unfortunately, negative perception often trumps the reality. The reality being that these battery systems are very good technology. The perception is that they have safety issues. They burn, for example.

Next stop in our process is to look at solutions. We start with education, developing relationships between the AHJ and the energy storage industry, for example, bringing them into the same room to co-develop solutions and emergency response procedures.

The second would be training first and second responders, those who have to deal with the emergency incident, make sure they're best prepared both to keep them and the people they serve safe. Then being honest with the end users about the minimal risks.

With lithium-ion, for example, a number of car companies have had fires in their vehicles. That provides ammunition to those who don't want to see these technologies succeed. What we try to impress upon the entire industry is that if we can mitigate from the front end, or address these issues on the front end, we can limit the risk. We can educate folks and make sure that they understand the realities of energy storage systems, not the perception.

The next step would be to move into active development of safety systems, fire suppression and containment, for example. We also understand that if we can prevent failure, we can starve critics of ammunition for negative press, for example. We can increase consumer confidence and protect the industry's reputation. All of this, ultimately, we feel will lead to commercial success.

Ann Nguyen:
What are the most important current and emerging fire suppression and containment technologies for stationary energy storage systems?

Ronald Butler:
To be quite honest with you, the systems that exist aren't necessarily designed for unique challenges presented by energy storage, certainly as it relates to batteries. Current suppression systems are meant for buildings as they are absent energy storage systems. To that end, unique fire suppression challenges are going to be required, again, certainly as it relates to electric-chemical applications, lithium-ion, etc.

Part of the problem is that current technology isn't designed to suppress, in lithium-ion's case for example, the fires generated by lithium-ion batteries. We have to be in the business of re-working that, re-engineering these systems and designing systems that are dedicated to these unique challenges.

ESSPI's approach is guided by an acronym we use. It's S-C-I-C. It stands for Suppression through Cooling, Isolation and Containment. As we look at it, lithium-ion, if we can focus on lithium-ion, that is a very popular technology. Lithium-ion burns a certain way.

The real focus has to be on mitigation, the front-end protection of these systems and buildings, making sure that if there are fires, that they are contained properly, that they are isolated from each other. That would be the batteries themselves down to the cell level, or the entire battery system itself is contained in the fire event preventing fire spread.

That's quite different from mobile technologies, for example, EVs and hybrids. The standards that guide safety relative to those are built in almost. The industry is required, from the beginning, to make sure that these devices' protections are built into the systems.

This is not necessarily true for stationary energy storage. One of the problems that the industry has had is, even though these technologies are great -- I must say that I am a big fan of these energy storage technologies, I think they're great technologies – but they're not built in on the front end. The safeties aren't built in on the front end, so we need to focus more on making sure that these safeties are developed as we move forward and allowing for acceptance by these Authorities Having Jurisdictions, which ultimately leads to acceptance by consumers and commercialization success.

Ann Nguyen:
Now let's consider battery safety in the logistics process. How do we currently ship battery technologies? What are some solutions for addressing current and future regulatory pressures in this arena?

Ronald Butler:
Great question. The existing challenges are considerable. As it stands now, some battery technologies just cannot be shipped on an aircraft for example. Major restrictions are in place. That's because of the fire issues, fire and other safety issues. We do a lot of forecasting with ESSPI. We look at what some of the future challenges will be. Some of these challenges will be caused by regulations, rules and laws.

Right now the focus has to be on making safer batteries. We also need to focus on how we ship these batteries, how we manage the process. What processes do we have in place to mitigate potential safety issues?

As we move forward, more focus has to be placed by everybody in the battery life cycle. That includes manufacturing, R&D and testing, logistics and the Authorities Having Jurisdiction on better containment systems for shipping and storage.

We look at the process of shipping and storage as a closed-loop event. The same systems that the batteries are shipped in should be the systems that the batteries are stored in. There's no reason to take them in and out. They can be used when they're needed. When they go bad, for example, they can be put in these systems and the systems are fire-protected and contained.

We look at the wider issue of shipping and storing batteries as one. We try to make sure that we design systems that can do both. Again, the focus right now is on developing systems, what we call passive fire suppression technology: fire suppression technology that will prevent the battery fire from spreading out of its container and to the rest of the plane. In this example, the aircraft. We have to look at a closed-loop process that involves shipping and storage.

Ann Nguyen:
That was Ronald Butler of Energy Storage Safety Products International. He'll be speaking specifically during Part 2 on Transportation, Packaging & Forensics at the Battery Safety conference in Baltimore, running November 17-19. To learn more from him, visit www.knowledgefoundation.com/battery-safety for registration info and enter the keycode “Podcast”. This is Ann Nguyen. Thanks for listening.


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