Catherine Von Burg Reflects on her Experience at NFPA Boston 2022
On June 7th, I had the honor of attending and making a presentation at the National Fire Prevention Association in Boston. My presentation centered on our UL 9540A Fire Safety Test results and a core message SimpliPhi Power has been making since founding in 2010 – that chemistry matters when it comes to creating a safe lithium-ion energy storage solution. Of course, other elements in the construction of a battery, such as cell form-factor (cylindrical, prismatic, pouch), quality manufacturing materials and processes, are important as well. However, fundamentally, lithium-ion chemistries that utilize the hazardous conflict mineral cobalt pose an intrinsic risk of thermal runaway, cell propagation, fire, and even explosion – that is not characteristic of lithium-ion chemistries without cobalt, such as the lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) that SimpliPhi utilizes. Particularly when it is housed in cylindrical cells.
While the NFPA conference offered a robust agenda, delivering on their mission to develop educational tools and resources to “eliminate death, injury, property and economic loss from fire, electrical and other hazards”, I was disheartened to find that there were no discussions or presentations focused on the different hazard and risk profiles associated with the various lithium-ion chemistries sold in the market today. How is it that the NFPA, “widely known as a codes and standards organization”, could have developed over 300 codes and standards “designed to minimize the risk and effects of fire by establishing criteria for building, processing, design, service, and installation around the world” without a rigorous root cause analysis as to how or why certain lithium-ion battery chemistries over-heat, catch fire and explode?
The simple answer is that battery manufacturers have not been transparent about their own technology – the specific chemistry, cell form factor or risk profile – with governing bodies like the NFPA that establish codes and standards around fire safety, much less the public. In fact, during all the sessions I attended concerning safety and battery storage, reference to “lithium-ion” was used to characterize a single class of batteries, without distinction between chemistry, cell form factor, or manufacturer. Even the data afforded by the new UL 9540A Fire Safety Test protocols, nor the installation requirements delineated in the UL 9540 Certification (based on 9540A test data) were not referenced, despite the fact that both 9540A & 9540 are fast becoming a requirement by Fire Departments and AHJ’s for both residential and commercial energy storage installations.
During one such session, “Lithium-Ion Energy Storage: A Panel Discussion of Lessons Learned from the Surprise, AZ Incident”, the panel failed to identify any specific information on the cobalt-based lithium-ion chemistry (NMC) or cell form factor (pouch) that LG Chem utilized in the utility scale battery designed for APS. The LG Chem battery went into thermal runaway, propagated across cells, caught fire and exploded, putting first responders in the hospital. Nonetheless, “lithium-ion” was referred to generically, as if all the “lithium-ion” battery chemistries and form factors available in the market have the same hazard and risk profile. They do not. Importantly, the UL 9540A Fire Safety Test protocol and resulting data, in which cells in a battery module or large unit level system are forced into thermal runaway (with heaters built into the battery), characterize these different hazard and risk profiles. So why aren’t the 9540A test results being demanded by the NFPA, AHJ’s, or even project developers, installers and consumers, particularly during a panel discussion at the national conference stating “Lessons Learned from the Surprise, AZ Incident”.
Disappointingly, the message delivered by the panelists, from LG Chem to APS and the Fire Protection Experts (FPE) in attendance, was that ALL lithium-ion battery chemistries and cell form factors are the same, with the same hazard and risk profiles. In addition to not being true, this ignored the independent data available in the 9504A tests being undergone by virtually every manufacturer of batteries in the market, that characterize the variability of safety profiles across chemistries and form factors. Even articles written by industry-leading ‘investigative reporters’ covering the highly hazardous LG Chem fire failed to mention anything specific as to the actual chemistry, beyond the generic term “lithium-ion” battery. The end result is that every time there is another battery recall, or worse, fire and explosion, the entire industry gets a black eye, including companies like SimpliPhi Power that has never been willing to gain market share by selling a cheaper lithium-ion chemistry and form factor at the expense of the consumer and public safety.
Why is this an important distinction? Because, without energy storage renewable sources of energy are intermittent and unreliable. But so too is the centralized grid in emergency and blackout scenarios in which the centralized delivery of power fails. Energy storage, that is distributed and customer-sited, eliminates that intermittency, and provides stored power 24/7 – when people need it, long after the sun has set, the wind has stopped blowing, or the grid has failed (or been willfully shut off by the utility during PSPS events). It is critical to creating energy security and resilience in homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and communities. Energy storage also plays a vital role in the transition to a higher percentage of renewables in our energy portfolio. Without energy storage, we do not have stored power reserves that provide electricity through the worst climatic conditions and weather events. So, when consumers, FPE’s, Fire Marshals and AHJ’s lose confidence in “lithium-ion” batteries because they are characterized generically as being hazardous and dangerous by stakeholders in the industry, the very solution to solve for intermittency and increase our renewable energy portfolio to combat climate change, is severely undermined.
What is the solution to educating the industry such that consumers, project developers and installers know that they have a choice – that not all “lithium-ion” batteries carry the same hazard and risk profile? The answer is more transparency on behalf of manufacturers – identifying publicly what the chemistry, form factor and manufacturing processes are behind the energy storage solutions they produce. It is only through this type of disclosure and open discourse that all stakeholders in the energy storage industry can begin to understand the differences and options available across the range of “lithium-ion” chemistries in the market. Informed purchasing decisions drive markets, beyond policies and incentives. Manufacturers must publish their UL 9540A test results to inform the public. It is in this spirit of public information and disclosure, informing the consumer to empower informed choices, that SimpliPhi Power has published its UL 9540A test results. We call on all other energy storage manufacturers to do the same. It is not the only step to empower the consumer to make informed purchasing decisions, but it is a significant beginning. This type of disclosure will also serve to drive innovation and propel the entire industry forward.