Lithium battery safety is not rocket science. Manufacturers with a robust set of production data can show customers success rates for their batteries and the conditions that cause batteries to fail. The problem is that very little safety data is accessible to most buyers or the public.
Buyers will always have to decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to tolerate. Some source batteries from a selective group of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and pay a premium to avert risks associated with the lowest-priced batteries. But many buyers are operating in the dark, lacking the safety data they would need to make an informed decision.
Consequently, the energy storage industry in its brief history has already witnessed dangerous and damaging lithium battery safety incidents, including the April 19 fire at Arizona Public Service’s McMicken Energy Storage facility. Other notable incidents include a lithium battery fire and subsequent battery malfunction that led the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 to ground Boeing’s entire 787 Dreamliner fleet. The next lithium battery fire can happen almost anywhere, anytime.
To safeguard against fire risks, ask lithium battery makers the questions about cell production and testing in this post. Battery buyers don’t have to wait for technology development or new regulations. They can bring about a new safety standard by demanding better safety data and buying lithium batteries only from OEMs that make the data available.
Questions to ask about cell production
Some online shoppers go to commerce platforms like Kickstarter for innovative products and products that may be available at a significant discount from an upstart manufacturer. When sourcing lithium batteries, you want to take the opposite approach. Instead of pursuing innovative products, look for proven products that have a long track record of consistent production. Instead of hunting for discounts from unknown suppliers, expect to pay fair value for a product that has completed a rigorous safety analysis and achieved an exceptionally low failure rate.
How many battery cells and battery packs does your supplier produce each year?
One lithium cell represents one data point. The more cells you produce, the more data you have. As such, the highest-volume producers have the most data on performance, thermal runaway, and failure.
For this reason, an OEM producing 10 million cells per year should have a better understanding of cell safety and performance. Large-volume manufacturers have probably seen every possible failure occur many times. By the same token, a small-volume manufacturer needs more time to analyze and understand cell failure. Buying cells from small-volume manufacturers may carry more risk.
What changes have been made to the battery cell and battery pack production process?
A consistent manufacturing process yields predictable safety and performance results. It’s plain to see that different cell materials bring about different cells. But different production equipment can affect safety characteristics just as much. Even if the materials and equipment stay the same, a manufacturer that relocates production may alter a host of environmental conditions and other variables that affect results. Changes in relative humidity, temperature range, and impurities in the air can impact safety characteristics of lithium cells. Differences in quality control and other processes introduced by a new manufacturing technician crew can also have an effect. All these changes should be understood and quantified in a prudent lithium battery safety analysis.
How does your supplier handle material acceptance and storage?
Even if everything goes right during the manufacturing process, pre-production material acceptance and storage can affect lithium battery safety. About five years ago, a global supplier of solar inverters experienced a series of product failures after electronic circuit boards had been stored in the wrong warehouse and exposed to moisture. Once product assembly was complete and the inverters were energized, a short circuit on the boards caused a fire and led to quite a bit of property damage. While moisture can also affect battery cell safety, so can other environmental conditions, such as air impurities and particulate matter.
It’s not easy to perform a safety analysis that identifies failure points for battery cells. To test how moisture affects safety, you would have to take identical cells and store one of the cell materials in an environment that gets wetter in small increments until you find a statistically relevant number of failures. Then you would have to repeat the process with incremental changes in temperature, dust, and other variables. Testing would require a lot of cells, a lot of minor changes in cell processing, a lot of time, and a lot of analysis. And it would all have to be done without vastly increasing cell production costs.
What are the failure rates for your supplier’s battery cells and battery packs?
In the absence of industry-wide standards, contractors seeking assurances about product safety have their work cut out for them. First, they have to request failure rates and analysis from each of their suppliers. Then the manufacturers must provide the data. Next comes the subjective test. If the contractor feels comfortable with the risk, he or she can decide if the battery quality is adequate. Different contractors have different tolerance levels for quality. A contractor who installs one small system per year may not place a great deal of emphasis on quality. The chances of failure are small. However, contractors installing many large systems must pay more attention to quality. Their businesses depend on the successful operation of a much larger population of cells.
Consider an OEM with a 99.98 percent success rate for battery cells in the first three years of operation. That translates to a 0.02 percent failure rate. If a contractor installs 1,000,000 cells per year, the contractor can expect 600 cells to fail. [Multiply failure rate (0.0002) x annual production (1,000,000) x number of years (3).] This might be an unacceptable level of risk. On the other hand, if a contractor installs 10,000 cells per year, the contractor can expect 6 cells to fail. This level of risk might be no big deal, so long as those cell failures don’t propagate to the entire pack or the entire storage system.
Questions to ask about cell testing
We all know not to leave a fireplace unattended or a gas oven running when nobody’s home. We understand that doing so introduces a serious risk of fire. But how many people know the temperature threshold that is likely to cause a lithium battery to catch fire or explode? Before procuring lithium batteries, especially those that will be sited at a building where people live or work, be sure to understand the conditions that create lithium battery safety hazards. Safety hazards that start in a single battery cell can quickly spread to the battery pack and the entire energy storage system.
What are your supplier’s battery cell thermal runaway characteristics?
It’s important to understand how a battery cell responds to the conditions that can initiate a fire or an explosion. There are many ways to test lithium cells for these conditions. Some examples are the top nail test, where a nail of standard size is driven with standard force into the top of the battery, and the side nail test, where the same procedure is carried out with a battery lying on its side.
Other tests include the fast heat test, where a battery inside a control chamber is exposed to a rapid temperature increase; the slow heat test, where a battery is exposed to a slow temperature increase, and the overcharge test, where a fully charged battery stays connected to a power source and is continually charged.
What is the probability of thermal runaway for your battery cells?
With test results in hand, you can make reasonable predictions about how a battery will perform according to design specifications. Graph 1 shows how increased temperature leads to thermal runaway. While all five cells exhibit similar power generation as temperature increases, there is a notable difference in how close each cell comes to the failure point represented by the horizontal red line at 160°.
Graph 2 shows how constant temperature over time leads to thermal runaway. The battery cell depicted by this graph remains at very low risk of thermal runaway when temperature is held constant at 159°. But a 1° increase in constant temperature vastly increases the probability of thermal runaway. A 2° increase makes thermal runaway a near certainty.
One of the challenges when characterizing lithium cell failure is calculating at what temperature and over what duration a cell fails. Because the answer is different for each cell, we need to see how different the answers are. What if one cell failed after two hours at 60°, another cell failed after 5 hours at 190°, and a third cell failed after 3 hours at 250°? This data would be difficult to characterize. It seems like almost every temperature is dangerous and could lead to cell failure.
Now what if the data looked more like this? Cell 1 fails after two hours at 160°, Cell 2 fails after two hours at 161°, and Cell 3 fails after 1.5 hours at 162°. This data suggests that thermal runaway is consistent and predictable. If we can find consistent results, we know when failures occur and how to prevent failure by designing systems for lithium battery safety.
How does thermal runaway spread from cell to cell?
This is really a two-part question. For starters, let’s look at how thermal energy from a failed lithium cell gets distributed across neighboring cells. Do all neighboring cells get the same amount of energy from the failed cell? Does one cell get all the energy while the others get none? Do two cells get 90 percent of the energy? Next, let’s look at how much stress an initiator cell applies on neighboring cells. If a failed cell exposes neighboring cells to temperatures up to 120°, the risk of cell-to-cell propagation is low. The risk is much higher if a cell failure has a magnitude of 180°. If energy is distributed unevenly, we would want to know the magnitude of stress for each of the neighboring cells.
What are the conditions that lead an entire battery pack to catch fire?
If cell-to-cell propagation extends to one or two neighboring cells and stops, failure of the whole battery pack or battery module is unlikely. If cell-to-cell propagation extends to hundreds of neighboring cells, it’s far more likely that the entire pack will burn. By understanding when battery packs catch on fire and start heating up the neighboring packs, the system designer can plan for fire detection and suppression systems as required by NFPA 855 and UL 9540A to kick in as a last line of defense.
What are the conditions that lead an entire energy storage system to catch fire?
If a fire containment system fails to contain a fire within the energy storage system enclosure, the charging infrastructure for the batteries may also catch on fire. (Think of a car catching on fire while being pumped with fuel at the gas station. Fire can spread to the gas pump, then the entire gas station.) Once the charging infrastructure is on fire, the entire property, including its occupants, are at risk. In sum, one battery cell failure can lead to the destruction of an entire building and the loss of life.
Demand lithium battery safety data
A safe battery is a well-documented battery. Test data helps engineers, system integrators, system owners, and regulators make smart, effective business decisions. While data doesn’t eliminate risk, it does inform us of the risk. Therefore, data empowers us to make decisions on how to manage, contain, suppress, mitigate, or ignore it. By putting appropriate measures in place, we can reduce risk to an industry-acceptable level. Without test data, a battery might operate safely today, but we don’t know why. Then if conditions change and the battery is no longer safe, we won’t know how to mitigate the risk.
The industry can expect a steady supply of safe lithium batteries as soon as buyers make purchasing decisions conditional on access to safety data. There are many safe batteries on the market. But there are many more cheap, risky batteries on the market. The simple solution is to buy safe batteries—which might mean accepting a higher price.
Contractors should request data from OEMs or look for third-party evaluations from independent engineering (IE) reports or independent test laboratories. The data is not publicly available, or hard to find, which is a serious problem. UL, the “gold standard” in product safety, even has trouble gaining access to this sort of data. So one requirement in the UL 9540 standard is to capture thermal runaway data, even for batteries that pass all the tests. In other words, when a lithium battery goes for the UL 9540 test, the test lab will force the battery into thermal runaway and then document the results to help characterize lithium cell failure.
A recent fire at a utility-owned energy storage facility near Phoenix, Arizona has implications for everyone who is standardizing around lithium-ion batteries to design storage systems. Since lithium represents about 95 percent of the market, this is a topic of near-universal interest.
Especially for me. My experience with lithium-ion batteries goes beyond the storage system engineering and design work we do here at SepiSolar. Ten years ago, not long after founding SepiSolar, I helped launch Green Charge Networks, an early leader in lithium battery deployments. That’s where I saw technology, product configuration, permitting, performance, and operational risks associated with lithium batteries begin to materialize.
The industry is moving fast to push lithium battery deployment to new heights, but we still cannot easily quantify risks. Nor the costs.
We at SepiSolar are technology agnostic. Our commitment is to openly consider the costs and benefits of all commercially viable design options. Given how many projects appear to be treating lithium as the only commercially viable technology, I encourage developers to reevaluate lithium—particularly after the recent fire in Arizona—and consider flow batteries as an alternative that can be deployed at lower cost, greater speed, and superior safety.
Arizona storage system fire
Reported facts about the fire at the McMicken Energy Storage facility are limited. Based on local media reports, we know that firefighters responded to an incident on April 19. While inspecting the 2 MW / 2 MWh battery system, eight firefighters suffered injuries in an explosion. The cause is unknown. All of the firefighters with the most serious injuries were in stable condition in the days following the blast.
The system owner, Arizona Public Service, switched off other energy storage projects in the aftermath of the fire but, as Greentech Media has reported, APS is not wavering on plans to deploy 850 MW of battery storage by 2025.
The entire industry will be paying close attention when investigators reveal their findings about the root cause of the fire and the ensuing sequence of events. Even now, however, developers can size up the inherent risks that all projects using lithium-ion batteries should address.
Lithium battery risks
Eight years ago, when the US Department of Energy awarded Green Charge Networks a $12 million grant to deploy lithium battery storage systems, I was bullish on the technology. If anyone was a believer in lithium, it was me. Then, one by one, the following risks came to light.
Every time you cycle a battery, capacity and efficiency drops bit by bit. Performance on day 30 will not be the same as on day 1. How well does your financial model sold to your client calculate degradation along the performance line?
It’s critical to make sure that a battery operates according to its specification. This means when you integrate lithium batteries at a facility, the function of the HVAC system expands from comfort to safety. Now, when an HVAC system requires a little maintenance, it’s not just an O&M concern, but a safety risk. A battery that begins to operate outside of its normal temperature range can experience thermal runaway.
Lithium-ion batteries use materials that can introduce safety and environmental hazards if not properly contained. The storage industry needs an effective process for salvaging lithium, nickel, cobalt, or manganese. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We can borrow best practices from the solar industry, which has recycling for silicon-based solar modules and collection and recycling of cadmium-telluride thin film modules at the end of their operating lifetime.
Lithium battery vendors have not yet established a track record showing the warranty claims rate. Or the frequency of warranty claims, which reflects the long-term failure rate for systems operating in the field. Early adopters carry the risk that failures may exceed expectations, straining the supplier’s ability to make good on all claims. In fact, engineers at one large lithium battery supplier have published a peer-reviewed scientific paper saying that lithium batteries are degrading faster than expected and proposing a patent to resolve the issue, suggesting that the risks should be taken seriously.
Three years ago, the Washington Post published anexpose on cobalt mining practices in Congo, where children help populate the workforce that uses hand tools to dig in underground mines, exposing themselves to health and safety hazards. Cobalt is an ingredient in lithium batteries. The Post has also traced the lithium supply chain from parts of Chile, whereindigenous communities have struggled to protect the environment and win local economic benefits from the extraction and sale of the lucrative mineral.
The low upfront cost of lithium batteries is only part of the total cost of ownership, one that excludes downstream costs associated with operations and maintenance of the batteries, the fire detection / suppression system, or the HVAC system that keeps the batteries within their specified temperature range. A failure to perform proactive operations and maintenance could not only increase long-term costs but void the manufacturer’s warranty.
As industry analysts have gained a deeper understanding of how much storage capacity is needed to keep storage-integrated HVAC systems running, it appears that round-trip efficiency for lithium battery systems may be lower than originally thought. Citing Lazard’s ongoing levelized cost of storage analysis, Greentech Media has reported that parasitic loads couldknock down system efficiency by 17 percent or more.
Advantages of flow batteries
In recent years, I have had many opportunities to compare lithium batteries and vanadium flow batteries side by side, while designing storage systems at SepiSolar and performing battery tests in partnership with Nextracker. The battery test, ongoing since 2017, consists of over two dozen battery types, including 5 lithium batteries, 6 flow batteries and 2 flywheels, plus an ultracapacitor, an advanced lead-acid battery, a copper-zinc battery, and a nickel-iron battery.
Through firsthand experience, one key observation at this point is that the market currently has two leaders in the race to achieve lowest total cost of ownership: lithium batteries and vanadium flow batteries. Vanadium flow batteries have earned a place on the leaderboard based on advantages in cost, performance, installation speed, safety, and design simplicity.
Please note, first of all, that battery costs vary based on storage system design and use case. The battery cost for a commercial system used principally for demand-charge reduction will be different than the battery cost for a grid-scale storage project designed for transmission and distribution deferral.
That said, Nextracker has shown that vanadium flow batteries can yield a lower total cost of ownership than lithium batteries due to significantly lower O&M costs over 20 years.
Nextracker has also demonstrated a competitive installation process with vanadium flow batteries. Installation of Nextracker’s NX Flow, a solar-plus-storage solution using Avalon Battery’s vanadium flow battery, requires less installation time and fewer materials than a central storage system due to being shipped “wet.” This means it’s full of electrolyte from the factory. It’s the first battery in the world to demonstrate this feature.
The battery is pre-commissioned and integrated with a 3-port string inverter at the factory. All battery-to-inverter wiring is complete on arrival. Before installation, the construction crew drives piles and installs cross rails to set up a mounting platform. Then the crew places the battery with a forklift and bolts the battery to the platform. Finally, the crew connects DC and AC wiring from the solar array to the inverter. Here is a 3-minute demonstration.
All plated batteries, including lithium batteries, have inherent safety risks. If you take the positive and negative sides and create a short circuit, the wire can get so hot that it explodes. Firefighters have reported on fires in electric vehicles that get damaged in a car crash, get towed, and catch fire days later.
Vanadium flow batteries have three key safety advantages. First, you can turn a vanadium flow battery off, preventing the device from charging or discharging altogether, and with zero voltage on both the positive and negative terminals. Second, the temperature rise in a flow battery is limited. Even if you short the battery on the chemical side or the fluid side, the temperature rises briefly and then drops, and the battery can be placed back into service immediately with no downtime to speak of. It’s the most boring test you’ll ever see. Finally, there are no flammable, toxic, nor hazardous materials or components. Check out this white paper on energy storage system safety from retired San Jose Fire Captain Matthew Paiss to learn more.
Flow batteries are simple by design. They consist of two chemical solutions, one with positively charged ions, another with negatively charged ions. When connected to a generator (actually, a reversible fuel cell) the battery charges by pulling ions from the positive solution and pushing them into the negative solution. When you switch the battery to discharge, the ion flow goes in reverse and generates an electric current. The “secret sauce” of vanadium flow batteries is that the entire electro-chemical reaction happens in a purely aqueous state, which translates to “no degradation,” which translates to “lowest LCOS.”
Trust and visionary thinking
As a licensed engineering firm, SepiSolar’s first obligation is to follow national and jurisdictional codes and standards. The value of our design work depends on our ability to optimize the best products and technologies for the right applications that maximize benefits and minimize costs, all while providing structural and electrical engineering stamps in all 50 states. Beyond that, SepiSolar follows a set of core values that promotes trust and integrity, and encourages visionary thinking.
When customers approach us to design lithium batteries for residential and commercial applications, we do it. When customers ask us to advise them on the tradeoffs between battery technologies, we do that as well, covering all the topics raised here.
Our commitment to promoting trust and visionary thinking compels us to discuss openly the risks (and, therefore, costs) of lithium batteries, especially in the aftermath of the Arizona storage system fire. While we hope the industry can mitigate all the risks, many have not yet been fully addressed. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Arizona firefighters who suffered injury to engage in an open discussion about lithium batteries.
Our customers are remarkably entrepreneurial. We expect that contractors will quickly adapt to market changes by delivering storage solutions that balance cost, speed, and safety.
Please contact us if you want to learn more about engineering and design for storage systems using flow batteries.