Burn before you build: The importance of destructive battery testing

burn test

Batteries solve the problem of intermittent solar irradiance and reliable clean energy. With energy storage systems, PV project owners and off-takers can continue using solar power long after the sun sets. After years of hype, battery systems are finally gaining traction in major markets, especially in states such as Hawaii, which no longer offers net energy metering to new residential solar customers. Yet energy storage systems remain a niche application in most of the United States and across the global solar market.

Safety is an important factor preventing adoption of solar + storage. Lithium-ion batteries, the dominant chemistry in energy storage systems (ESS) today, can pose significant risks to life and property when they are poorly designed, installed or maintained. These batteries contain volatile hydrocarbon electrolytes that can cause large, uncontrollable fires or explosions in certain conditions. Fire codes and standards designed to make ESS safer are currently being developed and adopted, but there is significant uncertainty and lack of awareness regarding these safe practices.

We now are facing the consequences

Since May 2018, nearly two dozen large-scale ESS fires have occurred in South Korea. On April 19 this year, an explosion and fire at an Arizona Public Service (APS) battery factory hospitalized eight firefighters, with three requiring airlift evacuation. APS took steps to shut down two of its other battery systems immediately following the event to assess safety concerns. These incidents are raising justifiable alarms with code officials and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), the fire service and utilities across the United States and beyond. Many developers, independent power producers and utilities are temporarily pausing operations to reassess the safety of their own systems following these alarming incidents.

The role of burn testing

Fire codes such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 855 will be instrumental for improving ESS safety. While NFPA 855 and other codes are nearing completion, they are still years away from broad adoption. To deploy energy storage systems safely in the meantime, the industry needs additional test data that proves and validates system response under non-ideal conditions and that helps define product standards.

PV Evolution Labs (PVEL) and its partners conduct large-scale destructive battery testing, or burn testing, that can address safety concerns, especially in the absence of regulation. The testing reveals how specific energy storage systems behave during failure by simulating realistic field failure conditions during battery operation. Burn testing results are used to assess installation safety and to help first responders determine the best ways to react when failures occur.

With better information about how failing batteries behave, stakeholders can identify the risks that are most likely to emerge for first responders, buildings and other infrastructure if an incident occurs. Developers and system owners can therefore design and implement better ways of managing and containing fires and explosions. For example, test results can be used to determine the level of ventilation or suppressant needed, which are both required in storage-equipped buildings or containers. Test results can also determine whether or not water or other nontraditional agents are adequate to contain fires.

How it works

Large-scale destructive battery testing starts with understanding the basic composition of energy storage systems. Batteries are comprised of cells — in some cases thousands of cells. A certain number of cells are placed in a single structure called a pack or module. These modules are then assembled in series and parallel combinations to form a full battery system. Compromising any one of the components at the cell, module or system level can result in the escape of flammable gases that may explode when exposed to oxygen and an ignition source. Fires usually originate in a single cell, but they can quickly propagate from cell to cell (an effect named thermal runaway) if the battery system is poorly designed.

PVEL follows the UL 9540A Method for Evaluating Thermal Runaway Fire Propagation in Battery Energy Storage Systems. The standard requires destructive testing of the battery at the cell, module, rack and full system levels. In each case, the cell is heated or otherwise forced into thermal runaway, releasing off-gas until the reaction results in fire, explosion or other thermal event. Dozens of variables related to off-gas composition and release rate, temperature, heat flux, heat release rate and explosion risk are collected at each level.

Burn testing provides insights into where a fire is likely to spread, how quickly and any explosion risks that may exist. This information helps first responders create proper emergency action plans and standard operating procedures for safe, rapid incident response — whether that is to quickly apply water or another extinguishing agent to the fire, or to simply allow it to burn and instead focus on containing the conflagration to a finite and defined area. The results also guide the design of suppression and detection systems, explosion modeling and protection and siting requirements.

Future outlook

Without burn testing, safe ESS deployment will not be feasible. Insurance companies are also taking note of ESS risks because of the fires in South Korea and Arizona. It is reasonable to believe compliance with standards will soon become a requisite for financial backing and insurance.

The standards and codes the industry needs for ESS safety are a work in progress. Although burn testing is only required in a few jurisdictions today, PVEL anticipates that it will be mandated across the vast majority of U.S. jurisdictions by 2021. The codes that we expect to be adopted also require large-scale fire testing to overcome a number of extremely conservative spacing and sizing requirements for battery systems.

With the right information, the industry can leverage this promising technology without undue risk to life or property, even before much-needed standards and codes are refined, implemented and required.

Michael Mills-Price is head of inverter and energy storage business at PV Evolution Labs (PVEL).

— Solar Builder magazine

Saft acquired microgrid power control company Go Electric to bolster energy storage offering

Saft battery company

Saft has acquired 100 percent of the shares of Go Electric Inc., a leading US-based developer of distributed energy resiliency solutions for microgrids and commercial and industrial customers. Go Electric’s microgrid power controller technology, combined with energy storage, plays a key role by islanding sites them from the grid should a power outage occur. The technology also helps to integrate higher levels of distributed renewable energy and reduce energy costs. Go Electric’s solution has been deployed in military microgrids and commercial sites across the US and Canada.

“This acquisition is an important step in Saft’s strategy to accelerate the growth of its energy storage systems business: Saft is now able to expand its scope of expertise from battery design and manufacture to the deployment of integrated turnkey distributed renewable energy storage solutions that connect customer sites to the grid,” said Philippe Sauquet, President Gas, Renewables & Power at Total.

“Go Electric can accelerate its growth beyond North America and benefit from Saft’s brand recognition and long-standing experience in providing high quality products in energy storage” said Lisa Laughner, CEO and co-founder of Go Electric Inc.
“The current evolution in customer requirements is bringing energy storage into a new area of competitiveness and performance. With this Go Electric acquisition, we are expanding our technology portfolio for distributed renewable solutions and reinforcing our footprint in North America” added Hervé Amossé, Saft Executive Vice President Transportation, Telecom and Grid.

— Solar Builder magazine

EV maker Rivian is trying out its second-life batteries in a solar microgrid use case

Recycle batteries

Electric adventure vehicle maker Rivian is trying out a new use for its second-life batteries in a solar microgrid initiative with the Honnold Foundation. The goal: to support energy independence and adoption of renewable power generation. The project, in the town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, marks Rivian’s first steps in its broad plan to utilize second-life batteries for a wide variety of applications.

The company is using 135 kWh battery packs from its development vehicles to support the project. Rivian has designed its pack, module, and battery management system to seamlessly transition from vehicle energy storage to stationary energy storage at the end of their vehicle life. The battery module’s thin design enables second-life applications that are space-efficient and customizable, important for environments with existing infrastructure.

“Second-life batteries are a big enabler to accelerating widespread adoption of renewable energy, and it’s exciting to envision this system contributing importantly to a community. This project allows us to model a customized energy storage solution that takes into account space constraints, disaster resiliency and energy independence,” said Scaringe.

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Adjuntas is a city of 20,000 in midwestern Puerto Rico. It was severely impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and with climate change increasing the frequency and severity of storms, Adjuntas NGO Casa Pueblo has sought to collaborate on rugged, affordable sources of community power.

The Honnold Foundation and Rivian battery engineers visited Casa Pueblo earlier in 2019 to meet with community leaders and together are designing a site-specific system that will power many of the businesses located in the Adjuntas town square. In power loss scenarios, the downtown solar microgrid will allow Adjuntas residents access to electricity for core businesses. By offsetting day-to-day electric bills, the system also brings down high commercial energy costs, which in Puerto Rico are twice the national average.

The system is expected to launch in 2020.

— Solar Builder magazine

Highview Power says its CRYOBattery is scalable energy storage up to multiple gigawatts and can go anywhere

Highview Power, a leader in long-duration energy storage solutions, says it has developed a modular cryogenic energy storage system — the CRYOBattery — that is scalable up to multiple gigawatts of energy storage and can be located anywhere. A bold claim! The company says the technology will set a new benchmark for a levelized cost of storage (LCOS) of $140/MWh for a 10-hour, 200 MW/2 GWh system.

Basically, Highview Power’s cryogenic energy storage system is equivalent in performance to, and could potentially replace, a fossil fuel power station. Highview Power’s systems can enable renewable energy baseload power at large scale, while also supporting electricity and distribution systems and providing energy security. The announcement coincides with its winning the 2019 Ashden Award for Energy Innovation for the CRYOBattery technology.

“Long-duration technologies such as cryogenic energy storage will become increasingly necessary for an electricity system to transition from a primary reliance on conventional fossil fuel generation to a grid dominated by variable renewable generation from solar and wind,” noted Alex Eller, senior research analyst with Navigant Research.

Inside CRYOBattery

Highview Power’s proprietary cryogenic energy storage technology uses liquid air as the storage medium. This is capable of providing all the services essential for a robust grid including time shifting, synchronous voltage support, frequency regulation and reserves, synchronous inertia, and black start capabilities. Unlike competing long-duration technologies, such as pumped hydro-power or compressed air, Highview Power’s CRYOBattery can be sited just about anywhere. The CRYOBattery has a small footprint, even at multiple gigawatt-levels, and does not use hazardous materials.

Javier Cavada, president and CEO of Highview Power, says the CRYOBattery can enable grid operators to maximize renewable penetration without needing fossil fuel generation to make up for intermittency.

“This makes replacing gas peaker power plants with a combination of solar, wind, and energy storage a viable reality and truly sets the stage for a future where 100% of the world’s electricity comes from clean energy sources,” he said.

Other locatable, long-duration energy storage technologies—such as Lithium-ion—typically offer a range of 4-8 hours of storage, whereas Highview Power’s CRYOBattery offers multiple gigawatt hours of storage, representing weeks’ worth of storage, not just hours or days.

The BLU controller

Over the last 15 years, Highview Power—through the design, construction, and operation of its CRYOBattery technology—has developed and optimized its own proprietary BLU core controller system. The system embodies the sum of Highview Power’s expertise into a complete facility management system. The BLU controller seamlessly integrates the control of all CRYOBattery components to provide optimal facility performance—managing the balance between flexibility, efficiency, and response.

The BLU controller enables a system to be configured to a particular application through the selection of individual operational modes. It also provides operation and performance monitoring feedback, ensuring a facility’s optimal efficiency. The system’s embedded flexibility further ensures that the controller has the built-in capacity to adapt as a facility’s demand varies with market development.

“After looking at a number of storage technologies, we came to the conclusion that Highview Power’s CRYOBattery is the ideal solution to deliver long-duration, large-scale storage services to our customers. The technology is not only cost-effective—it is scalable, clean, has a long lifespan, and can be deployed now,” said Joaquín García Rico, CEO of TSK, a leading global engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) company. Highview Power recently announced a joint venture with TSK to co-develop CRYOBattery projects in Spain, the Middle East, and South Africa.

Highview Power has partnered with Finland-based Citec to modularize its gigawatt-scale cryogenic energy storage system. With a simplified design and streamlined engineering from Citec, a standard CRYOBattery configuration of 50 MW/500 MWh can be easily, and cost-effectively, scaled up to multiple gigawatt hours.

— Solar Builder magazine

SimpliPhi adds accomplished environmental leader to board of directors

L. Hunter Lovins, a longtime environmental leader and sustainability adviser to corporations, governments and educational institutions is joining the board of directors of SimpliPhi Power, an energy storage company based in Oxnard, Calif. Her tenure is effective as of the company’s June board meeting. Lovins is President of Natural Capitalism Solutions. NCS helps companies, communities and countries implement more regenerative practices profitably.

“It truly is a thrill to join the company that is leading the battery storage revolution,” says Lovins. “We’re in a horse race with catastrophe,” she adds, “facing the climate crisis and the economically driven conversion to renewable energy, which, if not managed well will strand $25 trillion worth of fossil assets. With solar and wind now cheaper than coal and gas essentially everywhere, affordable storage is key to solving global warming at a profit. In my opinion, SimpliPhi makes the best, safest and most competitive option. I’m honored to do what I can to help this great company succeed. Our future depends on it.”

A professor of sustainable business management at Bard College, Lovins was named a Master at the De Tao Academy in Shanghai. She sits on the convening committee of WE-All, Capital Institute Advisory Board as well as on the board of Directors of Change Finance. A founding mentor of the Unreasonable Institute, she teaches entrepreneuring and coaches social enterprises around the world. She is the Chief Impact Officer of Change Finance, an impact investing firm.

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A consultant to scores of industries and governments worldwide, including International Finance Corporation, Unilever, Walmart, the United Nations and Royal Dutch Shell, as well as sustainability champions Interface, Patagonia and Clif Bar, Lovins has briefed heads of state, leaders of numerous local governments, the Pentagon, and officials in about thirty countries, as well as the UN, and the US Congress.

Consultant to community groups, local economic development agencies and municipal governments from Maori villages in New Zealand to eco-tourist offerings in Jamaica, she also advised the Energy Minister in Afghanistan. She has worked with local business groups and small NGO’s from Serbia to Honduras. Lovins created the Economic Renewal Project and helped write many of its manuals on sustainable community economic development, including LASER: Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal.

“We welcome Hunter to the board at an auspicious time for our company,” says Catherine Von Burg, CEO of SimpliPhi Power. “Energy storage is playing a major role in the global economy, supporting the transition to greater renewable generation, creating access and opportunity for the 1.3 billion that live beyond the grid, and sustaining security and resilience across customer sited homes, businesses and large commercial enterprises. As such, the sustainable underpinnings of energy storage are paramount to this emerging renewable economy, from the raw materials and extraction practices to the total carbon footprint of our supply chain, to how we participate and ameliorate economic parity. Companies have an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to make an impact toward positive change. Hunter refers to this multipronged approach to business as the ‘integrated bottom line’ in which all levels of a company’s operations are considered within the context of their impact on people, the planet and profit. Hunter will help guide SimpliPhi as it continues to expand globally and strives to achieve these principles across all its operations.”

Lovins has written sixteen books, including the recently released A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life. She has won dozens of awards, including the European Sustainability Pioneer award, and the Right Livelihood Award. Time Magazine recognized her as a Millennium Hero for the Planet, and Newsweek called her the Green Business Icon.

— Solar Builder magazine