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Fire sparks concerns over lack of standards on battery storage

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Images of an “exploded” lithium-ion battery storage device in a household garage in Victoria have been doing the rounds of social media, highlighting the risks and the lack of formal standards in a technology that is expected to be at the heart of a booming billion dollar industry in Australia.

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It is estimated that 50,000 battery storage systems could be installed in Australia over the next 12 months, and more than a million within a decade. Some suggest more than two million homes could have battery storage in a relatively short time.

It is hailed as the continuation of an energy revolution that will shift the onus on power supply from large centralised generators to the home and business. The CSIRO and leading utilities such as Engie predict half of all generation will come from local distributed sources, and battery storage will play a key role.

Australia is seen to be at the cutting edge of this revolution. Even the Coalition government appears to be on board. But the stark fact is that there are no official standards setting the rules and guidelines for new battery storage chemistries such as lithium ion in Australia, and there may not be for another three to five years.

This is raising concerns among installers and industry leaders about the potential fall-out if real damage is done, particularly if consumers aim for the “cheap” end of the market, as many did with rooftop solar.

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The images above first appeared on the social media website Whirlpool, where there are a range of theories as to what may have happened. The fire appears to have been contained and there are no reports of any injuries.

This incident occurred with a system produced by Growatt, a manufacturer considered to be at the “premium” end of the Chinese market. It has sent out a team from China to investigate the incident. RenewEconomy sought to contact the team but was not successful.

These photos were taken from an installation in Victoria. It is not known what caused the “explosion”, although it is assumed to be a case of “thermal runaway.” It is not known whether it is an installation fault or a problem with the system, or some third party factors.

The hope is that this a one-off. The fear is that the lack of standards means it may not be. The nature of battery storage systems and the energy and the chemicals that they embody potentially make them the most dangerous electronic item to be put in a home, as AGL’s head of new energy Marc England pointed out last year.

John Grimes, the CEO of the Energy Storage Council, says there are Australian standards in place for lead acid battery storage technologies (although these are 20 years old and need to be updated) but there are no standards for new chemistries such as lithium-ion.

The ESC is about to release a package of “best practice” guidelines for battery storage products, installations and maintenance that it hopes will act as an interim standard for battery storage developers and installers, and as a guide to consumers.

It is also about to produce a “white list” of  products to ensure that hybrid systems are inherently safe. This is being done with the help of international standards consultants DNV, via their energy storage testing laboratory in the US.

“The fact that there is no standard means there is the opportunity for shysters and carpet baggers to go out and put something in the market place,” Grimes said. “That is something that frightens us – we want and need good outcomes for consumers and the public right from day one.

“We don’t want to scare the public and say that there is a huge risk. Wree do want to make su that people make an informed decision. The number of systems out there is small – but it will grow exponentially.

“We need to ensure the safety of installers, customers and their families, and first responders in the event of an emergency, including fire.”

The Clean Energy Council says it, too, is working on developing battery product standards and introducing training for installers.

“We are excited by the possibilities presented by battery storage technology are exciting, but the protection of consumers needs to remain the industry’s highest priority,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“We have talked to a range of policymakers about this issue to highlight the need for regulation that will keep low-quality products out of the country and make sure that those installing battery technology are highly skilled professionals.”

Mark Hickey, an installer with NSW-based Light Touch Solar & Electrical, agrees that the lack of standards and controls over the actions of a few is a major concern.

While there were approval processes for solar panels – just recently updated to make them an ongoing and “random” search rather than a once off – and for inverters, there were none for battery storage. And there were no restrictions on the people who could install battery storage devices.

“Some people are out to make a quick buck and it’s more common than I’d like to think,” Hickey says. “Some of these smaller players will damage the industry for the rest of us who are trying to do good work.”

Hickey says this could prompt an overreaction from the government and incumbent utilities, with unjustified and costly restrictions put on the industry. “I’m very excited about battery storage, but I do have concerns about a few minority installers and the damage they can do the industry.”

Indeed, the overwhelming message from the solar and battery storage industry is that – like most industries – you get what you pay for. The fear is that Australian households – having gravitated, particularly in the early years, to the “cheap” end of the solar market – may do the same with battery storage.

Jeff Wehl, from Ecoelectric, an installer of rooftop solar and hybrid battery storage systems in Queensland, is one of those who says he fears many Australian consumers will fall into the same trap as they did with rooftop solar, buying cheaper and lower quality products in a bid to save money.

He said expectations of cheap batteries had been inflated by the promises of Tesla in delivering devices at around $A4,000 (after exchange rates). But this did not include inverters, other technology and installation. That led to expectations of low costs and a search for cheaper products.

Wehl recounts one recent product demonstration for installers by another battery storage brand that finished badly when the device “made a loud bang” as the capacitor blew.

“There were about 10 contractors in the room and we all had the same thought – we are not buying this for at least another 12 months. It seems that everyone is racing their products to the market, but some are not ready.”

Glen Morris, the chief technical expert on the ESC, is working with Standards Australia on developing a new standard – AS/NZS5139 – for new battery storage chemistries.

But he says it is a long process, particularly given that many of the people working on developing new standards work on a “voluntary capacity.”

He is in favour of a system adopted in Germany, known as KIT, which gives a weighting system on battery storage products. Any product below a given weighting cannot be installed.

“Anyone can sell a battery storage system in Australia,” Morris says. At the moment, the onus falls on the manufacturer providing safety guidance on they technology. He recommends consumers ask for a safety data sheet (SDS), but he says that few manufacturers provide them.

“I wouldn’t be putting chemistries inside a building until I knew it was inherently safe,” he says.

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  • Pfitzy

    Hopefully Elon has me covered in the event of a fire 😉

    But it does raise a bigger question about installation location: if you have a battery with a temperature rating below a certain value, you really need to consider where it is going.

    If its going in your garage: Does your garage face west? How big is it? Do you park your car in there without a lot of ventilation? How hot does in get in there, on a 40C+ summer afternoon, with a 100C+ car parked in and the door shut?

    I wonder if, long-term, we’ll see a difference between inside and outside installations.

    • Roger Brown

      Just add some Whirly Birds to the roof .

  • wmh

    And I thought I was living in a home, not a power station / storage facility with kilo- amps of prospective current.

  • BsrKr11

    Premium and Chinese really don’t go together…. to anyone who knows a little about the technology this was one of the primary concerns and could easily be predicted. …and yet let the market rip! The market knows best! Leave it to the market! What a joke!

  • solarguy

    A little known fact with Lithium chemistries, is that if the BMS fails and allows over or under charge to occur the cells can explode. Also the gas given off at the time will eat your lungs like mustard gas.

  • It was inevitable, I though it would be a little further along though until the rouges started importing rubbish and slapping it in. We will probably see the regulators over react with a stupid rule such as putting the batteries in a fire proof enclosure that will cause more fires and drive the price up just as DC isolators back in the day with grid connect.
    To me it is simple, prosecute the rouges!! If an electrician installs something substandard that “tradesperson” is responsible for it. If it causes damage, injury or death then that tradie needs to have their day in court. If the supplier misled the tradie then the tradie needs to then prosecute the supplier. We are past over regulating to try and counter rouges and the under educated in Australia they will always get around it whilst the honest people suffer.
    It is such a shame to see this news article today.

    • john

      NO it is simple just put in place a simple regulator that will cost less than $100 this is not some new idea.

    • MaxG

      Right on the money — fully agree.

      A BMS should not fail, and when properly designed, it will not fail — because a fail will lead to a battery disconnect.
      I have a 400A LiFePO4 battery (48V) with a 250A fuse and a max. charge current of 100A via a BMS relay switching 400A… meaning something will blow before any fire, and above all, the battery is also temperature monitored, and will disconnect over 40 deg C.

      • solarguy

        So what theory do you have as to why it went pop?

        • MaxG

          Don’t really have one, given the lack of specs; other than given the conduit sizes, there does not seem to be much in appropriate DC wiring sizes or DC protection devices.
          E.g I run 70mm2 cables … self-extinguishing fuses, etc. See more here: http://www.max.grenkowitz.net/tmp/SharedImages/_MG_0410_00.jpg or fuses here: http://www.max.grenkowitz.net/tmp/SharedImages/IMG_0428_00.jpg

        • I would assume the PCS would tell us, over charging would be my guess. I have never looked into the Growatt but I assume it was reporting to some portal at the time of the incident??

          • solarguy

            The thing that I didn’t know until recently is that under voltage of the cells can cause the damn things to explode as well. Anyway I hope we are informed as what caused it. The industry need to know and sooner the better.

      • It is an ugly installation, the use of corrugated conduit is rubbish and the amount of cabling allows for human error ( although the PCS should have picked that up and prevented fire). I have been given similar feedback for the Tesla from many people, too much wiring which confuses the tradies that looks terrible and opens up room for human error. I believe the K.I.S.S. principal is what is required to prevent further incidents. Dare I say ” Plug and Play”

        • Pfitzy

          Changes in technology make life too hard? I’m sure the first sparkies to move into solar said the same thing. Sometimes you just have to learn new things, and get better the more practice you have.

          I agree that the cabling in the burnout above is hideous. So much wiring going all directions, and wrong materials used.

          The one for the Powerwall – if installed correctly – looks a bit like this one attached to my house.

          I’d also add that any sparky who thinks they’re going to just walk into battery technology and slap it together is probably a mug. Stick to lights and power points.

          Pictures are below SolarEdge inverter and below battery interface (Storedge). The conduit to the left and down runs to under the Powerwall, which isn’t showing?

    • Martyn Summers

      While I am not an electrician / electrical engineer; However, a fire proof enclosure would seem ’empty-headed’ to me. It would be better to prevent the unit starting on fire rather than try and contain a fire once it has started. Presumably using fuses [old idea I think!] is more useful to deal with ‘over current’ situations.

  • john

    As per usual in each area of governance Australia is sadly lacking.
    No idea about chemicals at all let alone consumer goods.
    Why do i say this?
    Think MCI/MI.
    That is a chemical no regulations what so ever you will hear about this later this year.
    PFOA a chemical once again read above.
    Now standards and control systems to ensure correct control of a high performance energy battery; of surprise no control system.
    Come on Australia you can do better.

  • Phil

    Homes are not so critical regarding battery weights and even dimensions in many installations . So older and already proven storage battery technologies have far less risk factor as far as thermal runaway.

  • Eric Seegers

    No surprise that this has happened already & with the lack of regulation & compliance checks it’s only going to get worse. BTW, the pictures concerned first appeared on a Facebook group called Crap Solar. If you want to see plenty examples of how bad so many installs are, just look at this page. The authorities are useless at regulating this industry due to corrupt sales companies & cowboy installers. Ask any reputable installer how many rubbish systems are out there. It’s well into the thousands!

  • Chris Baker

    “The nature of battery storage systems and the energy and the chemicals
    that they embody potentially make them the most dangerous electronic
    item to be put in a home, as AGL’s head of new energy Marc England pointed out last year.”
    Really? I think this statement is quite detached from reality. What about a car? Does that count as an electronic item? According to a reference in this article the http://www.mynrma.com.au/get-involved/advocacy/news/how-and-why-do-cars-catch-on-fire.htm the NSW Rural fire brigade attended 407 car fires across NSW in Sept 2014 quarter alone.
    It seems that cars catch on fire so commonly that we just accept that as normal. We tend to store explosive items such as fuel in our garages without much care or worry about setting the place on fire.
    And here we have an incident of a lithium battery failure that has caught a lot of attention, and much of the commentary is just a story made up to match preconceived ideas, rather than a proper assessment of risk. To suggest the failure is due to a lack of standards is reactive. The implication is that if there were better standards then the fire wouldn’t happened, or that it is due to poor installers. That the manufacturer sent a team to investigate is laudable and clearly demonstrates an ethical approach to business, and their own standards of manufacture. They will no doubt look closely at what caused the fire and make changes to their product if it has a faulty design.
    It could be a good moment to just take a deep breath and not try to cook up regulations that don’t have a useful effect. Lets be careful we don’t introduce regulations such as happened in the early days of the car industry where you needed to have a man with a red flag walk along in front of your car.

    • Phil

      Chris i think Lithium Ion batteries in particular have a well reported history of spectacular failures involving recalls for fire risks . Even today there are new recalls out for Toshiba and Sony Laptops. And the Hoverboard battery fires are well known.These failures have been going on for a decade or more.

      Such spectacular failures were virtually unheard of with non Lithium Ion battery types. There are even procedures in place to deal with latop battery fires onboard aircraft.

      You are right in that the failure rate is very low , as are fires in cars , but the outcomes can be a destroyed home or even lives lost on any lithium Ion battery product from a laptop , hoverboard or energy storage system

      I believe the issue as stated here and in many comments is that there is no common industry standard for a bulletproof battery management system that NEVER allows thermal runaway to occur in vitually any situation except physical damage to the battery.

      Bad installations WILL happen , however i am certain a battery can be protected to prevent overcharging , overcurrent and thermal management. I also believe the cost to build this in at the manufacturing stage would be very low.

      The industry as a whole needs a minimum standard to prevent these fires from occurring. Either at the battery manufacture stage or the system design stage

      Here we are a decade or more on with Lithium Ion technology and that is still not in place.

      As an example of what can be achieved by Industry standards. Lead acid type battery cells in energy storage require bunding to prevent acid spills (wet cells) and venting to prevent hydrogen explosions. This protection is also done at the system design stage but it is such a basic and easy thing to do that it’s almost impossible to get it wrong. And as they are passive mechanical protections there are few risks of design or hardware failures causing a fire.

      Lead acid battery technologies also tend to fail in a less spectacular manner due environmental , overcurrent / overcharge or even physical damage.
      The outcomes of just these basic standards has resulted in safe operation in billions of installations everyday of lead acid technology from car batteries to Uninteruptable power supplies or off grid systems.

      The lithium Ion battery Industry requires uniform GLOBAL standards for protection at either the battery level and the system design level , or both.

      • MaxG

        Mind you, there are quite a variety of Li-ion chemistries out there, which also behave differently under abuse; hence, need different considerations.

      • solarguy

        Phil, your well across this.

      • Miles Harding

        Within Lithium batteries, there are also differing chemistries. At one end, LiCoO2 is particularly susceptable to fires due to the poor thermal stability of the Cobalt anode and at the other end are LiFePO4 that are very difficult to damage such that venting occurs.

        LiFePO4 is extensively used in car conversions, with no significant evidence of a battery fire risk associated, making converted EVs likely less of a fire risk than when it was a fuel burning ICE.

        • Phil

          That’s very interesting Miles

          Perhaps one day people with E-cars and Homes with batteries might find one day their insurance companies do something like this

          OK if you have these brands and models of batteries using LifePO4 then your premium is this. And if your using this other LiCo02 technology then your premium is higher , or they may not even insure you at all for fire if caused by a battery.

          I’m a bit gobsmacked that laptops sold fairly recently are STILL being recalled for possible battery fires as shown here.
          http://www.sony.com.au/support/announcement/610886

          • Miles Harding

            Sony is being cautions after their “flaming good laptop deals” fiasco a few years back.
            The average laptop or electric bicycle demonstrates that a simple scheme can be effective in managing Li-Co batteries safely.

  • Robert Comerford

    First we have to wait until the cause is known. If it was a Lithium Cobalt type battery and dendrite formation was the cause then it will also need to be determined if it was due to incorrect battery handling regimes or as a result of a well know issue with that type of battery chemistry. If the latter then fire containing cabinets would have to be the minimum requirement. LiFePO4 would be my choice at the moment if I was to have any type of lithium ion cell powering my house. Only last night there was another report of the inherent dangers of some Lithium Cobalt chemistries when a phone went into melt down while the owner was watching video on the device while in a plane. The fact the manufacturers are coming over to examine the evidence sounds like they are not some dodgy bros organisation selling rubbish.

    • Phil

      Yes that’s a sensible possible compromise with home installations . A fire cabinet with battery types more prone to thermal runaway.

      I wonder however if that even if the fire is contained there may be significant smoke damage to the premises ?

      I see the home on and off grid Lithium technology battery industry much like the LED lighting industry is now . How so ? , there are no clear or easily available guidelines or standards for drop in LED lamps in sealed enclosures with no ventilation.Or in and through ceiling fittings and the current driver power supply maximum allowed ambient temperature operation. The results of the premature LED failures are usually benign with simply an economic cost. And both battery and LED lighting technologies are in their infancy as far as becoming commoditised (LED less so)

      Batteries need industry Input for standards ex factory and at the design and install phase as they are an economic cost as well as a threat to life and property if poorly regulated.

  • Martyn Summers

    From the article –
    ‘This incident occurred with a system produced by Growatt, a manufacturer
    considered to be at the “premium” end of the Chinese market.

    Suggest a visit to the FB page ‘Crap Solar’ and enter the search key ‘Growatt’. There is enough there to convince me that ‘Growatt’ is NOT from the “premium” end of any market.

    Would like to hear the opinions of others to confirm or clarify.

  • Mr B

    If they are going to install battery storage in houses, they should enforce the use LiFePO4 cell chemistry only, or at least similar chemistries that do not suffer the same thermal runaway problems as li-ion cells (which was used in the Growat battery in the photos in the article).

  • Brian Bartlett

    Yes batteries, like any other electrical device, can cause fires. Washing machines for example. 200 fires suspected by one model.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-23/government-recall-of-samsung-washing-machines-in-nsw/6641644