Scientists believe that climate change is already contributing to an alarming surge in the frequency and intensity of fires, floods, wind, and heat. As the United States strives to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to minimize climate change’s impacts, grid-scale energy storage systems have a crucial role in enabling the widespread adoption of emissions-free renewable energy sources.
Escalating weather events add an extra layer of risk when it comes to the lithium-ion technology used in most battery storage systems. With their inherent sensitivity to high temperatures and water infiltration, it’s possible that leveraging lithium-ion storage technology to promote climate change resilience could create a new set of problems.
To ensure that battery storage becomes a critical component of the energy grid of the future, industry leaders must scrutinize the limitations of lithium-ion batteries today and explore options to prevent fire incidents in a changing climate.
Wildfires Expose Potential Lithium-Ion Risks
The western US has seen an uptick in the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and major recent fires in Canada and Hawaii prove that the risk is spreading beyond California’s borders. As people and infrastructure push farther into forested areas, and as fires break out closer to bustling communities, local fire services can no longer simply let fires burn themselves out.
This could be a dangerous situation for lithium-ion systems located in or near fire-prone areas. When these batteries overheat, they can go into thermal runaway, a self-reinforcing and uncontrolled increase in temperature that occurs when heat can’t be dissipated fast enough. The organic electrolytes inside some lithium-ion batteries are so sensitive to temperature that thermal runaway can begin at temperatures as low as 60 Celsius / 140 Fahrenheit, and once it begins, batteries can vent toxic and flammable gases for hours before eventually catching fire or exploding.
In parts of the world prone to frequent fires, it will be essential to ensure that lithium-ion systems are not located close to tree lines or other structures that could catch fire and increase the temperature inside the battery enclosure. In addition to exacerbating a wildfire and releasing toxic emissions, the loss of a battery installation could create significant grid instability in nearby areas, putting hospitals and other critical services at risk when they’re needed most.
Susceptibility to Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Floods
Climate change projections point to increasingly frequent extreme weather events. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment has warned that most of the United States is at a high risk of blackouts during extreme summer weather due to potential resource shortages in various regions.
Battery storage is a becoming a go-to solution to this issue; however, lithium-ion systems may be uniquely susceptible to damage from wind and water, which could increase the severity of a weather event by adding fire risk and taking critical battery systems offline.
High winds from tornados or hurricanes could cause physical damage to lithium-ion battery systems, leading to gassing, explosions, or fires. Floods can also pose a significant threat to lithium-ion batteries, causing shorts that can lead to fires—especially in coastal areas with considerable salt in the air and water. One need only look at the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in 2022, where first responders in Florida were battling electric vehicle (EV) fires days after the storm had passed due to water infiltrating battery packs and salt bridges forming across battery terminals. While those EV battery fires were more spread out and manageable, imagine an installation of hundreds of battery storage containers catching fire after a flood in a crowded city such as Houston, New Orleans, or Miami.
Managing Risks and Improving Resilience
With the conditions of a changing climate in mind, some actions can be taken now to address the vulnerabilities of lithium-ion storage systems.
Careful consideration of a location’s geographical and environmental factors can help reduce the likelihood of exposure to floods, wildfires, or extreme heat. Robust infrastructure measures, including flood protection systems and fire-resistant enclosures, can provide additional protection for battery installations. Successful case studies of battery projects in high-risk areas, like the Kodiak Island microgrid in Alaska, can serve as models for effective location planning and infrastructure design.
In addition, advanced sensor technologies can continuously track parameters such as temperature, voltage, and state of charge, providing valuable insights into the battery’s health and performance. Early warning systems integrating weather data and predictive analytics can alert operators to potential risks during climate events, allowing them to take proactive measures to mitigate issues. Combining artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms further enhances battery monitoring and maintenance practices, enabling more accurate predictions and timely interventions.
Stamping Out the Problem with Non-Flammable Chemistries
It’s important to note that while hazard mitigation measures available are effective, they come with substantial associated costs. Considering alternative storage technologies with lower price points and hazard mitigation requirements can lead to a more financially prudent approach to addressing climate risk.
Exploring other energy storage technologies that may be less susceptible to weather events is essential to ramp battery storage deployments up and keep costs and liabilities down. Flow batteries, for example, use non-flammable liquid electrolytes, thereby offering increased safety and longer durations of power supply. Pumped hydro and compressed air storage are less affected by wind and water, along with other mechanical systems. AlsymTM Energy is close to introducing a non-flammable, non-toxic battery offering that checks all the boxes related to climate resiliency. By diversifying the portfolio of energy-storage technologies, the reliance on a single technology can be reduced, enhancing overall system versatility in various climate conditions.