Fire sparks concerns over lack of standards on battery storage

It is hailed as the continuation of an energy revolution that will shift the onus on the power supply from large centralized generators to the home and business. The CSIRO and leading utilities such as Engie predict half of all generation will come from local distributed sources, and battery storage will play a key role. Australia is seen to be at the cutting edge of this revolution. Even the Coalition government appears to be on board. But the stark fact is that there are no official standards setting the rules and guidelines for new battery storage chemistries such as lithium ion in Australia, and there may not be for another three to five years. This is raising concerns among installers and industry leaders about the potential fallout if the real damage is done, particularly if consumers aim for the “cheap” end of the market, as many did with rooftop solar. The images above first appeared on the social media website Whirlpool, where there is a range of theories as to what may have happened. The fire appears to have been contained and there are no reports of any injuries. This incident occurred with a system produced by growth, a manufacturer considered to be at the “premium” end of the Chinese market. It has sent out a team from China to investigate the incident. RenewEconomy sought to contact the team but was not successful.

These photos were taken from an installation in Victoria. It is not known what caused the “explosion”, although it is assumed to be a case of “thermal runaway.” It is not known whether it is an installation fault or a problem with the system, or some third party factors.The hope is that this a one-off. The fear is that the lack of standards means it may not be. The nature of battery storage systems and the energy and the chemicals that they embody potentially make them the most dangerous electronic item to be put in a home, as AGL’s head of new energy Marc England pointed out last year. John Grimes, the CEO of the Energy Storage Council, says there are Australian standards in place for lead-acid battery storage technologies (although these are 20 years old and need to be updated) but there are no standards for new chemistries such as lithium-ion. The ESC is about to release a package of “best practice” guidelines for battery storage products, installations, and maintenance that it hopes will act as an interim standard for battery storage developers and installers, and as a guide to consumers. It is also about to produce a “white list” of products to ensure that hybrid systems are inherently safe. This is being done with the help of international standards consultants DNV, via their energy storage testing laboratory in the US. “The fact that there are no standard means there is the opportunity for shysters and carpet baggers to go out and put something in the marketplace,” Grimes said. “That is something that frightens us – we want and need good outcomes for consumers and the public right from day one.

“We don’t want to scare the public and say that there is a huge risk. We do want to make sure that people make an informed decision. The number of systems out there is small – but it will grow exponentially. “We need to ensure the safety of the installers, customers, and their families, and first responders in the event of an emergency, including fire.” The Clean Energy Council says it, too, is working on developing battery product standards and introducing training for installers.“We are excited by the possibilities presented by battery storage technology are exciting, but the protection of consumers needs to remain the industry’s highest priority,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We have talked to a range of policymakers about this issue to highlight the need for regulation that will keep low-quality products out of the country and make sure that those installing battery technologies are highly skilled professionals.” Mark Hickey, an installer with NSW-based Light Touch Solar & Electrical, agrees that the lack of standards and controls over the actions of a few is a major concern. While there were approval processes for solar panels – just recently updated to make them an ongoing and “random” search rather than a once off – and for inverters, there were none for battery storage. And there were no restrictions on the people who could install battery storage devices. “Some people are out to make a quick buck and it’s more common than I’d like to think,” Hickey says. “Some of these smaller players will damage the industry for the rest of us who are trying to do good work,” Hickey says this could prompt an overreaction from the government and incumbent utilities, with unjustified and costly restrictions put on the industry. “I’m very excited about battery storage, but I do have concerns about a few minority installers and the damage they can do the industry.”

Indeed, the overwhelming message from the solar and battery storage industry is that – like most industries – you get what you pay for. The fear is that Australian households – having gravitated, particularly in the early years, to the “cheap” end of the solar market – may do the same with battery storage. Jeff Wehl, from Eco electric, an installer of rooftop solar and hybrid battery storage systems in Queensland, is one of those who says he fears many Australian consumers will fall into the same trap as they did with rooftop solar, buying cheaper and lower quality products in a bid to save money.

He said expectations of cheap batteries had been inflated by the promises of Tesla in delivering devices at around $A4,000 (after exchange rates). But this did not include inverters, other technology, and installation. That led to expectations of low costs and a search for cheaper products. Wehl recounts one recent product demonstration for installers by another battery storage brand that finished badly when the device “made a loud bang” as the capacitor blew.

“There were about 10 contractors in the room and we all had the same thought – we are not buying this for at least another 12 months. It seems that everyone is racing their products to the market, but some are not ready.” Glen Morris, the chief technical expert on the ESC, is working with Standards Australia on developing a new standard – AS/NZS5139 – for new battery storage chemistries. But he says it is a long process, particularly given that many of the people working on developing new standards work on a “voluntary capacity.” He is in favor of a system adopted in Germany, known as KIT, which gives a weighting system on battery storage products. Any product below a given weighting cannot be installed. “Anyone can sell a battery storage system in Australia,” Morris says. At the moment, the onus falls on the manufacturer providing safety guidance on the technology. He recommends consumers ask for a safety data sheet (SDS), but he says that few manufacturers provide them. “I wouldn’t be putting chemistries inside a building until I knew it was inherently safe,” he says.