Energy Saving Opportunities Scheme ESOS

Safety challenges around energy storage

08 Nov 2023


With more lithium ion (Li-ion) powered products on the market, there has been an increase in the number of issues arising from domestic and grid scale use. It is widely accepted that Li-ion batteries present an efficient storage solution for larger amounts of energy, but the lack of education and understanding around the challenges of doing so is worrying. Equally, there is a need for regulations to ensure safety and remove confusion around the true environmental impact at the end of life of these batteries. Hence the call for intervention, regulation and control – before it’s too late. 

We had a prominent panel and an invigorating discussion during our  50th anniversary celebration event, which looked in detail into the storage challenges of Li-ion batteries. 

This panel included: 

•    Chris Sowden, Emergency Response Team Manager, Ricardo
•    Paul Christensen, Founding Director, Lithiumionsafety Ltd
•    Andrew Barnes, Incident Management Specialist, Environment  Agency
•    David Hurren, President, British Compressed Gas Association


Stop, Collaborate and listen

Our panel voiced an appetite for collaboration with policy makers, manufacturers and emergency response services to ensure the risks and hazards are fully understood by all parties.

Of the 65 known global incidents over the last four years, details for only three are widely understood.

The push back on reporting issues with energy storage systems tends to come from a fear of derailing the sustainability agenda. However, wider understanding and collaboration may find solutions to potential hazards at an increased rate which would move sustainability efforts forward.

When asked how to prevent incidents, the panel agreed that education and training were the best way forward, but also stated that secrecy and litigation are rampant in the Li-ion community, which needs to change so that we can continue to learn. In general, the knowledge is there for key teams – emergency services and other front-line teams are becoming more aware and working more collaboratively. Trade associations sharing knowledge and experiences through open dialogues where incidents occur helps establish where knowledge gaps are and keeps open conversations going.

Moving forward, updated regulations to include L-ion and electric vehicle (EV) batteries and guidelines for building battery storage – with due consideration for fire prevention and response – would help protect people, the environment, assets and reputations.

Representing the Environment Agency, Andrew voiced concerns beyond the handling and use of these new fuels, with his main concern being the lack of thought to environmental mitigation, control and recovery. Fires from lithium or hydrogen based fuels require vast amounts of water to extinguish, leading to challenges with contaminated water and air pollution. Similarly, waste fires caused by disposable vapes and other batteries can take days to extinguish and lead to significant water and air quality issues demonstrating we need stringent regulation and safety standards today.


End of life
These concerns led to the panel to explore the issue of how today’s energy storage becomes tomorrow’s waste.

Currently there is no known solution for EV batteries at end of life.

This poses a very real risk where unregulated use of second-hand EV batteries with c. 20% life remaining are used in other applications. But equally, could end of life EV batteries be used in energy storage systems, if done collaboratively with the manufacturer and be regulated use instead?

The chemical industry has experience of hydrogen in controlled environments. As this evolves to common use, the industry is at an important junction where sharing its knowledge and experience with others through training will be key. From users to first responders, to local planning authorities and suppliers all parties will need to understand the implications of using new energy technologies. 

New normal
Sustainability issues are encouraging organisations to find lower-impact chemical solutions, with many opting for plant based/bio-based alternatives. However, bio-fuels have their own challenges. Where normal fuels float, bio-fuels break down into component parts which are soluble and can travel further into the environment. For example, these fuels are more likely to be ingested by fish, which may be ingested by humans.

Our expert panel agreed that decentralised and distributed energy storage is the way forward as these rely on localised sustainable sources. For example, having a greater number of storage facilities attached to domestic or commercial properties that have sustainable energy sources (solar panels) delivers a network of power back to the grid. This, however, presents the new challenge of cyber security for networked systems of highly sensitive commodities.

These new technologies have been adopted at a faster rate than has been seen previously, and the prevalence of Li-ion batteries in the world today presents many challenges. What is clear from the discussions is that policy and education must catch up. Given the risks, it is essential that controls over end-of-life Li-ion battery storage and handling are implemented. Only by working collaboratively can the chemical industry, policy makers and manufacturers maximise the opportunity that hydrogen presents, but it must be designed sustainably, trained for, and continually monitored – cradle to grave. 


Ricardo can help
Through a unique collaboration with international government bodies, the chemical industry and global fire and rescue services, Ricardo experts have developed hydrogen and wider alternative fuels’ training courses that provide quality learning that embed practical knowledge. We also continue to support organisations in their decarbonisation journeys, including life cycle impact assessments and circular economy approaches. Moreover, our policy experts can support compliance and the public and private sectors to assess the impact of policy changes on business strategies and product portfolios. 

If your organisation is interested in exploring the opportunities presented by alternative fuels, please contact us and we can support your organisation in strategic implementation, safety considerations and sustainability assessments. 

Effective emergency response: In conversation with Chris Sowden

Sowden, Chris B&W Sep 13 V2

Chris Sowden

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