Should we ban lithium batteries from our homes?
Willow Aliento | 30 March 2017
SPECIAL REPORT: Whether lithium ion batteries are safe to have inside the home or are likely to explode or cause fires is a question that’s stirred up a lot of people in the industry lately, following rumours that a Standards Australia standard in development could effectively ban them from inside homes.
Hardly the biggest risk in homes – try halogen lights
Warwick Johnston, managing director of solar consultancy Sunwiz, says a ban on lithium ion solar storage batteries in homes makes no sense.
“Does that mean you can’t take a laptop inside? Or you can’t park an EV in a garage?” Johnston says.
“It seems like when you get all the electrical safety officers in the room it’s the highest common denominator and they will push very hard for something ludicrously restrictive.”
He gives the example of the old electric radiators that would cause serious burns if someone brushed up against them.
“Would they be allowed in houses if they came onto the market today?
“Or take the regular combustion engine, where you pour lots of flammable liquid in and haul it around at 100 kilometres an hour – now that doesn’t sound very safe, does it?”
When it comes to fire risk in homes, he says, “halogen downlights cause more fires than anything.”
Have you treated them badly?
Part of the answer to the safety question could depend on whether the manufacturer has punished them enough during the testing phase to find out.
LG Chem, for example, sets its batteries on fire, drops them, shoots them with nail guns, attempts to overcharge them and otherwise treats them very badly, says James Allen, business manager, Australia and Pacific at LG Chem.
There are weeks of testing for every possible scenario to make sure the lithium ion batteries it releases are safe and will perform, he told The Fifth Estate.
The battery chemistry is a patented technology, and over 10 years of research and development has seen “a lot of issues” resolved.
Inside the cells, a patented nano ceramic layer between the anode and the cathode protects against arcing, an internal problem that can cause the battery to become dangerous.
Allen says his company has around 30,000 of its Residential Energy Storage Unit batteries installed globally, and batteries in more than half a million electric vehicles, and there has not been a single fire due to the batteries.
It’s somewhat of a furphy that there is currently no standard
His company is testing against the International Electrotechnical Commission and international science safety company UL’s standards, including UL 62619.
These standards set out the testing regime to establish battery safety and are currently used to certify battery systems in North America and Europe. Tests include crushing, external short-circuit, impact, drop, “thermal abuse”, overheating, overcharging, forced discharge, imbalanced charging and other extremes.
“We believe these [international standards] should be adopted for the new Australian Standards rather than the current draft proposal,” he says.
Allen says it is possible there are other battery manufacturers that are not undertaking the type of testing that establishes safety.
“At the start of uptake, people don’t know anything much about a product. And it is only after talking to others that they learn more,” he says.
In terms of purchasing a safe product, consumers need to know what to look for or “choose reliable products and brands”.
“In the absence of knowing much about the technology, they should put their trust in brands.”
Scott Partlin, global product manager for SMA, has representation on the Standards Australia’s EL-042 committee responsible for the development of AS/NZS 5139 Electrical Installations – Safety of battery systems for use in inverter energy systems.
His company’s position is also that the international standard should apply in Australia.
Where there’s a will there’ll be a way
Anthony Tannous, executive general manager at CSR Bradford, which has been retailing a package including the Tesla Powerwall to consumers and builders, says he’s been hearing the rumours of a potential ban on indoor installs.
“But the Tesla is tested – they even test it by setting it on fire – and there’s no issues,” Tannous says.
“They can be installed inside or outside.”
The idea floating around that a stand-alone kiosk or “bunker” for the batteries might be mandated would “slow things down” with the company’s sales and installations, he says.
“But we would think through a way to manage it.”
He also says it would be unlikely to slow consumer uptake, because “the value proposition” in terms of reducing energy bills is still there.
Watch out for the cowboys
In terms of ensuring safety, Tannous says the company uses only technicians and electricians that are trained and certified for installing panels and batteries.
This is a standard the Clean Energy Council put in place a while ago for accredited providers, he says.
There are, however, other firms out there that may not be accredited and may not follow the right procedures.
Managing risk in the industry’s interests
Chief executive of Nano-Nouvelle, Stephanie Moroz, named by Engineers Australia as one of the country’s most innovative engineers last year, says it is not possible to make one blanket rule for all lithium ion batteries.
“It is not like lithium ion is just one chemistry,” she says. “There are many different chemistries and they can all behave differently.”
One of the crucial safety elements is the battery management system, Moroz says.
A good one will make sure the battery charges properly and discharges properly, and will be capable of “responding to any suspicious behaviour”.
The bottom line is “there’s a risk with anything that is storing large amounts of energy”.
“But we run electrical wires all over our houses, and we are piping gas into houses – there are risks with that and we know how to manage those.”
A knee-jerk reaction
Moroz says a ban on indoor installations would be a “knee-jerk reaction”.
“It would certainly make it more expensive [to install storage] and it would reduce the market.”
One reason some people might no longer invest is they simply don’t have the outdoor space for a kiosk, she says.
A potential solution in this scenario for continuing to promote renewable energy could be more centralised storage. This could also enable more control over the conditions the batteries operate in.
Part of the reason for the concerns around lithium ion safety has arisen from products like the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smart phone, which had battery-related issues in some products that caused fires and explosions including, reportedly, last month at the factory in China that was manufacturing the batteries.
Moroz says people who looked into the reason found that too many components had been packed in, leading to overheating.
“Somewhere along the way someone tried to cut corners,” she says.
That then leads to the company, and the product having a bad reputation, and this is the real risk for the storage sector.
“If you take the cheapest thing you can find, that is a risk. Any reputable manufacturer will manage risk [in terms of their products] because it is their business at stake.
“They don’t want anything going wrong.”
With any battery technology, be it lithium ion, lead acid, nickel-based or flow batteries, “there’s always going to be a risk,” Moroz says.
“There is a simple electrical risk if you have all this energy stored.”
There are other risks with some of the other technologies, for example lead acid batteries are highly toxic.
“You wouldn’t want a lead acid [battery] leak inside your home.”
Some batteries, like Redflow’s Z Cell, are only for outdoor installation for safety reasons, she says.
What makes lithium ion the poster child for battery risk is it is the most fire prone, and that is “more dramatic” than a lead acid leak.
What consumers need to do is make sure the installers know what they are doing. Battery owners also need to ensure there is proper follow-up and maintenance.
Some brands may have a battery management system that is capable of disconnecting the battery if it is showing signs of failure, Moroz says.
“It is like a car – each one is different.”
Why a standard is a good idea
In terms of the value of standards for storage, she says standards generally “have a really important place in terms of any technology”.
“Without them it is possible for people to call themselves experts and run off and do things that then damage the reputation of the industry.”
This is similar to what happened with the insulation industry, where a handful of inexperienced installers and non-compliant installations resulted in the whole industry reputation being tarnished.
Standards ensure products are safe for both the consumer and for the industry, Moroz says.
AS/NZS 5139 is currently being drafted, and Standards Australia says it is expected to be released for public comment in April.
“It might need redrafting if there are big comments,” Partlin says.
He says media reports that suggest Standards Australia will propose banning the installation of lithium ion batteries inside homes are “a bit wide of the mark”.
Also, the standard will only have legal force if state governments choose to incorporate it into state-based electrical safety legislation and mandate it be adhered to, he says.
Don’t panic – it’s just a draft
In a statement released in February following media reports of a possible restriction on lithium ion batteries, Standards Australia said “contrary to recent speculation, Standards Australia is not developing standards that will ban the introduction of on-site lithium-ion battery storage in Australian homes”.
The statement says the standard aims to “enable the safe installation of battery energy storage systems”.
It is proposed the draft will have provisions for installation requirements for all battery systems connected to inverter energy systems, covering all battery types; mitigating hazards associated with battery energy storage system installations; and classifying batteries based on hazards, and not chemistry type.
A nine-week community consultation period is being proposed once the draft is released, with comments to be considered by the committee.
“In these circumstances, further speculation of a ‘ban on on-site storage’ by Standards Australia would be inaccurate and misleading.”