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Are Lithium Ion Batteries Safe?

By Eco Guy 9:25pm 30th March 2017
We ask if Lithium Ion Batteries are actually safe for use in home power storage systems or not?

Lithium Ion batteries, like all batteries, store their power using a chemical process. Different processes have different energy densities and characteristics, like sensitivity to heat and longer term usable storage capacity (most batteries degrade over time). 


The particular question with Lithium Ion and their safety, in part, relates to their incredibly high energy density; a high energy density means there is a lot of 'chemical potential' stored in a given volume. In essence there is more energy in a Lithium Ion battery to go wrong 'with' if something does happen to go wrong. Also Lithium Ion has a nasty characteristic of being able to self sustain a fire event, it literally can feed off itself. For instance on some planes with Lithium Ion backup batteries, they actually have a 'vent' to the outside, so if they do happen to catch fire all the heat and fumes go outside..

Now, if we were to just install basic Lithium Ion batteries in our homes without appropriate safe guards, we would be setting ourselves up for a disaster. Luckily though manufacturers of Lithium Ion batteries for home use have worked hard to put in place multiple design safe guards to prevent 'run away' fire situations occurring, they do this by:
  • Physical Design - making the battery robust and secure
  • Monitoring - checking temperature and battery vitals to ensure it does not overcharge
  • Installation Procedures - ensuring it isn't installed in places where it could be a problem.
So, Lithium Ion batteries have the 'potential' to catch fire; but the actual risk of them doing so has been reduced through design and processes to actually make it not a significant worry.

Note: this does not mean all batteries are the same and that all battery installers are the same; you still need to do your homework and ensure you have a safe battery and an approved and trained installer fit the battery.

You should also check to ensure that appropriate installation standards are in place, both with the battery and with training with the installer, an installer who does not understand the standard cannot do an installation to it...

So why all the fuss?

I think some if it is justified, you wouldn't want to be putting a Lithium Ion battery on your fire escape route for instance, nor would you be wanting to put it close to any sources of intense heat. Hopefully the installation standards cover this, although I would prefer it if governments actually mandated where battery systems are permitted or not; then everybody would know what is permitted or not.

Australian Conditions and Lithium Ion Batteries at home

Australian conditions need special consideration with respect to Lithium Ion batteries, in particular:
  1. Extremes of Temperature - Australia is known for being hot, temperatures climbing above 40 degrees in Summer is not unusual. Therefore any install of Lithium Ion batteries needs to survive such extremes without failing.
  2. Extremes of Fire Risk - The native Australian landscape is known to be in 'incendiary', namely once alight it will happily keep burning. This provides a dual risk for Lithium Ion, as the batteries can act as a potential fire source and fire accelerator. Also its likely in off grid situations where Lithium Ion could be used that it would be remote and in bush land...
  3. Extremes of Flooding Risk - Australia seems to cycle between drought and flood, the flooding can be quite extreme, which raises the question of how Lithium Ion batteries would respond to flood conditions..
Basically I'd hate to see Lithium Ion batteries be the root cause of a Bush Fire event, it would put the case for renewable battery energy storage back by a generation at least; not to mention the damage and potential loss of life that could occur in such a situation. Standards need to be applied to ensure the likelihood of a Lithium Ion battery being the cause of a Bush Fire is minimized. I know a lot of people want to see adoption of Lithium Ion be increased, but this cannot be done at the expense of lives and property.

Now the industry knows that the perceived fire risk with Lithium Ion batteries is a big issue, and therefore have made some silly comparisons with other sources of fire risks in a house; totally missing the fact that it is the lack of installation standards to enforce safety which is the issue. Everything has risks, even sitting down or getting out of bed; if people or companies act beyond what the standards say is safe, then it becomes more one of an insurance issue than anything else (i.e. they won't pay out in the event of a fire). Also the fore mentioned halogen lights are being replaced by far safer (and cheaper to run) LED based lighting.

Update

I note with some interest that the Australia Standards body have essentially thrown up their hands and put the settings of standards around the use of Lithium Ion batteries in the 'too hard' basket. This is a real shame, someone needs to make a clear stand on determining the appropriate level of care in ensuring that installations of Lithium Ion batteries in the Australia context are suitably safe - we do not want to see such batteries being the root cause for a Bush Fire event or the root cause for a loss of life if the standards of install are suitably 'loosened' to encourage the sector growth - this is akin to Big Tobacco saying smoking isn't bad for your health. Standards are there to ensure safety as a whole, if you start poking holes in it as a business convenience - its the start of slippery slope, which could prove rather expensive to undo after the event.

Also I think there is a lot of business 'poor me' going on here - IF the batteries provide the benefits they claim for the lifetime they warranty - then the additional installation costs will just push back a bit the final date of positive returns for the investment. Also if everyone is having to follow the stricter standards, then a standard compliant cost effect way of doing the installs will emerge within a short time.

Also if it is uneconomic to safely install Lithium Ion batteries in Australia, then that is it; no getting away from it, the conditions in Australia could be such that the appropriate thing to do is not to install Lithium Ion - although I suspect this is extremely unlikely - rather we will should see a determination of where it is certainly NOT appropriate to be installing such batteries. Also Lithium Ion is not the only player in town (Zinc Bromide flow batteries for starters). 

Just think back to when having asbestos installed all over the place was appropriate, then we found out just how bad it was and had to rip it all out again; the same mistake should not be made in Australia with Lithium Ion.

Basically in Australia there should not be a climb down on setting the appropriate safety standards; Australia needs to avoid another 'Pink Batts' episode (for those who don't know legislation got rushed through to fund installing roofing insulation, net result was loads of dodgy installs and several installers dying from electrocution or heat exhaustion). 

Related Content Tags: solar, lithium ion, batteries, australia

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