By Tim Grejtak, Lux Research
South Korea offers an object lesson on how overlooking safety can have a chilling effect on markets – in its case, resulting in around US$400 million in lost sales of stationary energy storage systems.
Three years ago, South Korea was the largest stationary energy storage market in the world with more than 1 gigawatt hours (GWh) of deployments, surpassing Germany, the United States, and even China. However, after a series of battery fires, the South Korean government ordered stationary storage systems to cease operations, froze installations of new systems, and launched an investigation and inspection effort.
Some 35% of such facilities were reportedly suspended in 2019 due to the fallout from the 23 fires that occurred over a 21-month period.
The South Korean government was quick to clear battery cell manufacturers of blame for the fires, noting that while some cells had manufacturing defects, none would have caused the level of damage that could have led to the fires.
Instead, the installation, operation, and maintenance of the systems were to blame. Battery systems were improperly shielded from sparks or shocks, poor weatherisation led to dust and moisture that caused equipment to fail, and systems were either improperly installed or installed without adequate safety and control measures.
The government responded with a more rigorous and frequent inspection process, new liability laws, and specific codes and standards, such as locating outdoor energy storage systems in dedicated enclosures and limiting behind-the-meter energy storage capacity to 600kWh.
While these standards may help reduce the severity of behind-the-meter storage fires, they may not address the challenges of utility-scale energy storage systems installed in solar-heavy regions like Australia, California, and Arizona, which are much larger than 600kWh and often in remote sites.
In April 2019, while the South Korean fires were being investigated, another fire broke out at a 2MW system installed at an Arizona Public Service substation that injured four firefighters. When external readings indicated temperatures inside the battery compartment were below 40°C, the firefighters opened the battery compartment door, and there was an explosion.
The fundamental issue with stationary storage systems is that they are larger and contain more energy than consumer devices or even electric vehicles. When a fire breaks out, therefore, larger systems increase the complexity and severity of the situation.
Managing these large, complex devices requires multiple levels of safety. The stationary storage safety framework illustrated in this article is meant to convey the critical need for a thorough systems analysis when evaluating the safety of stationary storage products.