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Protecting energy storage from fire risk

Author : Hannu Sartovuo, Dafo Oy

02 December 2023

As the world races to meet ambitious sustainability targets, the global energy storage market continues to grow rapidly. It’s estimated that 387GW / 1,143GWh of energy storage capacity will be added globally from 2022 to 2030 – that’s more than Japan’s entire 2020 power generation capacity. The US and China are still leading the way, with Europe set for a significant ramp-up in capacity as a result of the recent energy crisis.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

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However, with increased energy being stored – and more batteries being used at capacities – the consequences of a fire are more severe, and many customers are seeking reassurance on fire safety as the market continues to expand. Hannu Sartuvuo, Vice President at Dafo Vehicle Protection, discusses the different risks and the measures needed to ensure a safe transition to a global, greener future.

A changing energy landscape

Governments across the globe are pushing ambitious sustainability goals, spurred on by the extensive talks at the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP27) and other environmental conferences, which have led to an increased focus on reducing carbon emissions.

The shift to a net zero emissions future by 2050 is a major component of these sustainability goals. To achieve this, the global yearly investment in clean energy is expected to more than triple to over $4 trillion before 2030. This increase will inevitably put tremendous strain on energy storage systems worldwide, which is why there is an urgent need to increase energy storage capacity.

An increasing number of individuals and companies are turning to electricity from renewable sources to power their business operations and daily lives. When energy is derived from renewable sources, the ‘electrification’ of automobiles, machines and other equipment that powers daily commercial activities and residential buildings helps to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. However, this comes at a cost. To store and transport this energy, more batteries – mostly lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries – are also required. This creates unique fire safety issues as demonstrated by the numerous battery fires at energy storage facilities across the globe in recent years. As more batteries are added to the global storage solution, the risk of these consequences will necessarily increase.

Unpicking the risks…

Thermal runaway is the main danger associated with using Li-ion batteries to enhance energy storage capacity.

Thermal runaway takes place when a battery's cells breakdown. Various factors might lead to this breakdown, including physical harm to the battery, overheating, excessive charging, mechanical malfunction or excessive voltage. When thermal runaway occurs, the battery heats up quickly, leading it to release excess energy and raise temperatures to potentially dangerous levels.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

If these temperatures are not brought under control using efficient fire detection and suppression techniques, thermal runaway can quickly progress, potentially resulting in toxic gas emissions, large explosions and fires.

Because of space and capacity limitations, energy storage facilities frequently store batteries next to one another. This can cause a much larger problem, as the hazards will propagate from one battery to the next, magnifying the safety repercussions.

A lack of regulation causes safety concerns

Regulation around the safety of energy storage facilities is, unfortunately, lacking. Since the worldwide drive towards electrification is still in its infancy, many government agencies and insurers are still debating how best to ensure safety, and appropriate information hasn't yet been disseminated throughout the market.

Certain manufacturers and suppliers may choose to adhere to advised American standards, such as UL 9540, but these are not required and aren't carried over into other regions of the world, like Europe.

All too frequently, in the absence of regulatory requirements imposing best practice safety precautions, battery storage facilities also often seek the cheapest solution. The short-term solution is to choose an unsuitable, inferior fire detection system, or perhaps to forgo choosing a system at all. Longer term, however, there is a clear cost trade-off, as the cost of the risk, once realised, frequently surpasses the cost of choosing the best system from the start.

It is extremely dangerous for businesses to leave important safety choices up to their own discretion when there is no legal requirement for safety guidelines and a lack of understanding of the risks.

Overcoming risks to enable a safe, green future

It should be noted that conventional fire detection and suppression systems often fail to completely remove risks associated with Li-ion batteries. This is because, in the event of a thermal runaway, batteries have the capacity to produce oxygen on their own, which feeds the fire from within. This makes employing conventional methods of suppression very difficult as in order to properly control the fire, it must be fought from within the battery. Remedies including aerosols or powders are being tested, however, even if they could put out the first flames, they won't stop the process entirely or remove the danger.

Hannu Sartovuo, Dafo Oy
Hannu Sartovuo, Dafo Oy

According to research, suppression systems must apply massive amounts of water for prolonged periods of time in order to successfully put out these kinds of fires, and this is only for one battery. The amount of water needed for an entire unit of batteries is significantly increased and runs counter to the environmental activities that prompted the need for an increase in energy storage capacity.

Consequently, a novel and distinctive detecting mechanism is required. According to research by Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection, the most effective way to stop thermal runaway within a Li-ion battery and lower the risk of fire and explosion is frequently to install an early fire warning system accompanied by targeted spot cooling prior to the occurrence of thermal runaway.

Prior to activating the spot cooling system, it is important to identify a suspected battery failure in its earliest stages – or when the battery begins to release toxic gases. Quick identification will halt or postpone the development of a potentially hazardous scenario, keeping the fire from spreading and minimising damage and downtime. For example, some innovative fire suppression systems include an effective cooling system that’s integrated into the energy rack.

As soon as the temperature starts to increase, the operator can control the danger and lessen its effects on the entire energy storage facility, reducing the risk of facility damage and human safety. This is done by cooling the inside of the battery pack.

A risk destined to grow

As the global need for sustainable energy grows, energy storage facilities will inevitably have to expand their current capabilities to meet demand. This will increase the risk of danger, including a possible cascade risk should a fire occur.

The future of the world depends on increasing sustainability, but doing so properly is essential to safeguarding people, nearby property, and the environment. As battery storage technology advances, it is critical to identify hazards quickly, using the right, customised detection tools, and to put spot cooling measures in place right away.

About the author:

Hannu Sartovuo is Managing Director of Dafo Oy, Finland, and Vice President for Dafo Vehicle. He’s worked at Dafo Vehicle since it’s conception, driving fire safety in high-risk environments as industries evolve.

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