What can we learn from Tesla’s Victoria fire?

BY ROBERT MALTHOUSE

  • A blaze at the Victorian Big Battery has drawn attention to fire risks
  • Companies can react with stronger mitigation and fire response
  • Being open about battery fires could help spread best practice

It is four weeks since a Tesla Megapack caught fire during testing at one of the world’s largest battery storage projects.

On 30th July, a 13-tonne lithium-ion battery at Neoen’s 300MW Victorian Big Battery complex in southeast Australia – which has not yet been switched on – erupted into a four-day blaze. It took 150 firefighters and 30 fire trucks to bring it under control.

Out of 210 battery packs at the project, firefighters were able to contain the spread to only a second unit. The site was also disconnected from the grid to ensure there was no impact on the wider system. There were no injuries.

But such a blaze has brought fresh attention to the risks involved in battery storage. This is a hot topic for the industry given that, this week, General Motors also said it would recall 73,000 Chevrolet Bolt electric cars due to concerns about battery fires.

Both stories will prompt questions about how the industry should respond.

What’s happened since?

Tesla, Neoen and several other authorities are currently investigating the cause of the Victoria Big Battery fire, and final reports will take time to emerge. In the meantime, though, there is a risk that the discussion about potential fire risks in batteries could damage future investments in utility-scale batteries.

The first thing worth noting is that these fires will attract attention, and the industry has to accept that. It’s part of working with a nascent technology.

Since 2018, there have been a total of 38 large lithium-ion battery fires, according to Newcastle University professor Paul Christensen, who has been researching them. One in Beijing killed two people and took 235 firefighters to control it, while another in Arizona seriously injured four people.

Companies in the industry will look to reduce these risks of course, but they also need to engage with the fire services. Lithium-ion battery fires cannot be extinguished with water, which instead prolongs the lifespan of the fire.

In addition, while burning, a mixture of gases including oxygen are produced. When these are released, they form a vapour cloud that can ignite and cause an explosion. The oxygen can also make it very difficult for firefighters to stop the fire re-igniting.

Consequently, the recommendation from Tesla is to rapidly cool everything around the affected battery unit and let the fire burn out. No doubt this and other approaches will evolve as utility-scale batteries become a bigger part of the electricity mix. That is needed in addition to industry-wide safety measures to help mitigate future risks.

Some include offering a means for owners, operators and fire crews to monitor what is happening inside the system at any time.

Another is redesigning facility layouts so that first responders can easily move between the battery backs with ‘dead pipes’ for easy access to plenty of water.

It could also prompt changes at Tesla. Elon Musk, CEO at Tesla, has talked about safer variants of lithium-ion technology such as lithium-iron phosphate batteries that use less reactive materials but are suitable for big batteries.

And what about the Victorian Big Battery itself?

Tesla has yet to release an official statement about what happens next. The Victoria site was scheduled to become operational before Australia’s peak summer demand period later this year, and there’s been no confirmation of any delay to that timeline.

Looking ahead

The reality is lithium-ion batteries are a relatively new technology, especially at that scale. There is a risk with every technology. For example, the explosion at the Ku-Alpha oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico this week shows that accidents cannot be totally removed, even when technology is established.

All that companies in this sector can do is to improve their systems and learn from the growing body of evidence about fires, while giving investors the facts they need to price in these risks when funding projects.

Fundamentally, though, experts are saying we need to keep this in perspective. Fire is a risk, and we will see fires given the number of battery units installed at any project. The key is to be open about the risks so they can be addressed – while showing the industry has nothing to hide – and not over-react.

Energy storage is an important part of the energy transition. Yes, there will be risks. But the risks to the world of not making that transition are far greater.

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