Should fire services have a say on storage projects?


  • More than 40 large-scale lithium-ion batteries have caught fire
  • UK parliament bill proposes making fire service statutory consultee
  • Fire risk one of the biggest reasons for opposition to projects 

Concerns about the fire risks posed by lithium-ion battery storage systems continue to mount.

Only last week, in one of the most recent incidents, it was reported that a fire had broken out at a 103MW battery at a Hyundai Steel factory in Incheon in South Korea. It posed a serious challenge for the fire services, and, according to reports, firefighters from five different stations were needed to tackle the fire. One report said a total of 140 people, including firefighters, had been deployed at the scene in an attempt to get the fire under control.

The Hyundai factory storage fire was the latest in a number of such incidents. Research has shown that there have been around 40 known fires to have occurred in large-scale lithium-ion battery systems. Among the most high-profile was the blaze at Tesla’s 300MW Victorian Big Battery in Australia in July last year.

Now a group of politicians in the UK have decided to take action.

‘Weaponizing’ energy supplies

Last week, Dame Maria Miller, the member of parliament for Basingstoke, stood up in the UK Houses of Parliament and, on behalf of a group of 12 MPs, asked for leave to be given to introduce a bill to make local fire services “statutory consultees for industrial lithium-ion battery storage planning permission applications”.

When discussing the motion in the house, Miller sought to stress the importance of renewable energy and energy storage. She said the transition to renewables was “essential to protect our environment, but is also crucial geopolitically”. She continued: “We know only too well that hostile powers are willing to use energy supplies as a weapon. Home-grown renewable energy can help to shield us from attacks. With renewable energy, capture and storage become crucial.”

‘Immense environmental damage’

Yet despite acknowledging that storage has a vital part to play in the transition to renewable energy, Millar highlighted concerns about lithium-ion battery fires. She said extinguishing battery fires creates “huge quantities of water containing highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid and copper oxide, by-products of battery fires.” Millar added these toxic chemicals “cannot be allowed to seep into watercourses, because they would cause immense environmental damage”.

Millar concluded by saying that, while lithium-ion battery storage facilities are needed, they should be recognised as having the potential to create “dangerous events and hazardous substances”.

The presentation of the bill has gone down particularly well among fire service professionals in the UK – it’s known that many members of the service fear serious incidents involving energy storage systems.

More regulatory barriers for storage?

The problem is that, given that energy storage is correctly viewed as having a crucial role to play in the energy transition, there will be a reluctance in some quarters to introduce measures that could jeopardise the future deployment of storage.

It’s certainly true that, what Millar is proposing – that is, a situation in which battery storage planning applications would be referred to the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the fire service – would mean that there would be significantly more regulatory barriers to overcome before energy storage systems could be successfully deployed in the UK.

And, of course, more regulatory barriers would mean many opportunities to block energy storage projects.

It would undoubtedly pose a challenge for many storage developers and projects could be jeopardised.

However, if developers were forced to take more steps to tackle this issue head on, it’s likely that they would remove one of the biggest sources of ammunition for those who currently campaign against the development of energy storage projects in their locality.

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