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  • Graeme Warnell

The assurances needed to help the growth of clean energy become accepted into local communities

The need for large scale lithium-ion battery storage is critical for the UK in developing its clean energy infrastructure. In the past challenges to the planning of solar farms and battery storage systems tended to focus around their visual impact on the local environment but are there other risks that the public should be made aware of ?

The development of a NIMBY, (not in my backyard), attitude towards clean energy sites requiring large scale battery storage can drastically slow down planning and delivery of sites essential for power generation. We have to avoid the paradox of, “I want cheaper energy, but I do not want the generation to be near to me”.

After engaging with local communities, I discovered there was a big, “fear of the unknown “. A more open and engaging approach regarding explanations of the risks and risk mitigation strategies between designers, planners and local communities could prove beneficial up front.

Every site will have its unique risks whether that is public safety, such as proximity to schools and residential areas through to environmental sensitivity in areas of outstanding natural beauty or where the impact of a pollution event would have both a significant and widespread effect on the surrounding area.

In this document we try to highlight some of the risks and, the responsibilities of designers, operators and landowners in making sure these risks are not only mitigated through good design practices but also shared with the local communities.

One of the main safety concerns associated with lithium-ion batteries is the risk of thermal runaway, which can lead to fires and explosions. This can occur when the battery is damaged or exposed to high temperatures, causing a chain reaction that releases heat and flammable gases. Once ignited, the fire can spread quickly and be difficult to suppress.

Several high-profile incidents involving lithium-ion battery fires have occurred in recent years, highlighting the need for caution when using and storing these batteries. For example, in 2019, a lithium-ion battery storage facility in Arizona caught fire, causing an explosion and releasing toxic smoke into the air. In 2020, a fire broke out at a battery energy storage system in South Korea, causing significant damage and injuring several firefighters.

Due to these safety concerns, lithium-ion battery storage systems should be located away from residential housing and other sensitive areas. They should be designed with safety features, such as fire suppression systems and thermal monitoring, to reduce the risk of fires and explosions.

One of the most concerning toxins released during lithium-ion battery fires is hydrogen fluoride (HF), a highly toxic gas that can cause severe respiratory damage if inhaled. HF is commonly used in the manufacturing process of lithium-ion batteries, and when released into the air during a fire, it can form a highly corrosive acid that can damage lung tissue and cause respiratory distress. Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is another toxic gas that can be released during lithium-ion battery fires, which can cause dizziness, nausea, and even death in high concentrations.

The public safety and environmental impacts of a large-scale battery storage fire are not only related to the fire itself. Lithium-ion batteries contain a range of toxic chemicals, including heavy metals such as cobalt, nickel, and lead. When these batteries are exposed to fire or high temperatures, these chemicals can be released into the environment and pose a significant risk to both human health and the environment.

In addition to toxic gases, the firewater runoff from lithium-ion battery fires can also contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, which can contaminate soil and groundwater. These heavy metals, including cobalt and nickel, can accumulate in the environment and pose long-term health risks to humans and wildlife. For example, cobalt exposure has been linked to lung and heart disease, while nickel exposure has been linked to cancer and respiratory illnesses.

When installing a large-scale lithium-ion battery storage system, several engineering measures should be implemented to minimise the risks of fire, explosion, and environmental contamination and to remove all risks of smoke inhalation and property damage from the public. These measures include:

  1. Fire Suppression Systems: The battery storage system should be equipped with an automatic fire suppression system, such as a sprinkler system, to prevent fires from spreading and to suppress them quickly.

  2. Thermal Monitoring: The battery storage system should be equipped with a thermal monitoring system that can detect any changes in temperature and shut down the system before it reaches a critical level that could trigger a thermal runaway.

  3. Battery Management System: The battery storage system should be equipped with a battery management system that can control and monitor the charging and discharging of the batteries, which helps prevent overcharging, undercharging, and other issues that can lead to a thermal runaway.

  4. Physical Separation: The battery storage system should be located in a separate building or area that is physically separated from residential housing and other sensitive areas. This helps to minimise the risks of smoke inhalation and property damage in case of a fire.

  5. Proper Ventilation: The battery storage system should be designed with proper ventilation to prevent the accumulation of flammable gases and reduce the risks of fire and explosion.

  6. Emergency Response Plan: An emergency response plan should be developed and implemented, which includes procedures for evacuating the area and responding to fires, explosions, and other emergencies.

  7. Environmental Containment: The battery storage system should be designed with environmental containment measures to prevent the release of hazardous materials into the environment in case of a fire or explosion.

Designers have a legal responsibility to ensure that lithium-ion battery storage systems do not harm the public or the environment because they are the ones responsible for designing and engineering these systems. They have a duty of care to ensure that the systems are safe, reliable, and do not pose any risks to human health or the environment.

The design of a lithium-ion battery storage system can significantly impact its safety and environmental performance. For example, the placement of the batteries, the materials used, and the engineering of the system can all affect its fire safety, risk of explosion, and environmental impact.

If designers do not take adequate measures to prevent harm to the public and the environment, they could be held legally responsible for any damages or injuries that result from their negligence. This could result in lawsuits, fines, or even criminal charges, depending on the severity of the harm caused.

In addition, designers have an ethical responsibility to prioritise the safety and well-being of the public and the environment when designing lithium-ion battery storage systems. As these systems become more prevalent and larger in scale, the potential risks associated with them increase, making it even more critical for designers to ensure that their designs are safe, reliable, and environmentally responsible.

For landowners and operators of solar farms with lithium-ion battery storage have legal responsibilities for protecting the public and the environment. These responsibilities include:

  1. Compliance with Regulations: Landowners and operators must comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and permits related to the installation, operation, and maintenance of their solar farms and battery storage systems. This includes complying with safety and environmental regulations, such as fire safety codes, hazardous waste disposal requirements, and air quality standards.

  2. Maintenance and Inspection: Landowners and operators must ensure that their solar farms and battery storage systems are properly maintained and inspected regularly to identify and address any potential safety or environmental issues. This includes conducting regular equipment maintenance and testing to ensure that the system is functioning properly and conducting regular inspections to identify any potential hazards or environmental risks.

  3. Emergency Response Planning: Landowners and operators must have a comprehensive emergency response plan in place to address any potential safety or environmental emergencies. This includes identifying potential risks, developing response procedures, and ensuring that emergency personnel are trained and equipped to respond quickly and effectively. Access to the battery storage system is critical.

  4. Notification and Reporting: Landowners and operators must notify relevant authorities, such as fire departments and environmental agencies, of any potential safety or environmental hazards associated with their solar farms and battery storage systems. They must also report any incidents, such as fires, theft of vandalism that which may have resulted in or have the potential to harm the public or the environment.

  5. Liability: Landowners and operators may be held liable for any damages or injuries that result from their negligence in protecting the public and the environment. This includes damages related to property, personal injury, and environmental contamination.

If there are plans to locate a large-scale lithium-ion battery storage facility near your house, you have the right to seek assurances from the operators that the facility is safe for both the public and the environment. Here are some key assurances you may want to seek:

  1. Safety Standards: Ask the operators about the safety standards and regulations that they are required to follow. Ensure that the facility is designed and constructed in compliance with all relevant codes and standards, including fire safety codes, hazardous materials regulations, and air quality standards.

  2. Risk Assessment: Ask the operators to provide you with a risk assessment that identifies potential hazards and risks associated with the facility. This should include a detailed analysis of the risks of fire, explosion, and environmental contamination.

  3. Emergency Response Plan: Ask the operators to provide you with a copy of their emergency response plan. This should include procedures for responding to potential hazards and risks associated with the facility, evacuation and safety guidance for local residents as well as contact information for emergency services.

  4. Environmental Impact Assessment: Ask the operators to provide you with an environmental impact assessment that evaluates the potential environmental impacts of the facility. This should include an analysis of the potential risks to air and water quality, as well as to local flora and fauna. If there is a prevailing wind direction typically associated with the site smoke plume migration must always be considered.

  5. Liability and Insurance: Ask the operators to provide you with information about their liability and insurance coverage. Ensure that they have adequate insurance coverage to protect against potential damages or injuries resulting from the operation of the facility.

  6. Community Outreach: Ask the operators about their plans for engaging with the local community. Ensure that they are committed to transparent and open communication with the community, and that they are willing to listen to and address any concerns or questions that you may have.

Overall large-scale battery storage systems have a good reputation for being safe, but this may be due to their limited numbers resulting in a limited number of reported incidents. As their presence grows in the community, they will inevitable edge closer to residential and commercial areas with denser populations. Safety innovation is growing rapidly regarding large scale battery fire suppression but it still lagging behind the speed of roll out and the industry is still a long way from any form of best practice.

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