Battery fires haunt the electric car and clean power revolution
In late August, General Motors announced that it was recalling 142,000 Chevy Bolts — every Bolt ever made — because of fire risk. Over the course of about 17 months, the company confirmed 13 fire incidents involving the model — 11 in the U.S. and 2 overseas. GM said the recall was due to rare manufacturing defects by South Korea-based supplier LG Corp.
On Monday, the automaker said it has found a fix and will begin replacing defective batteries in October. Even so, GM has advised Bolt owners to park their cars 50 feet away from other vehicles to reduce the risk that a spontaneous fire could spread.
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Recent battery fires haven’t happened just to cars. In early September, Vistra Corp.’s massive 300 megawatt Moss Landing battery plant in northern California was knocked offline after overheating triggered the sprinkler system. In late July, a fire broke out at one of the largest utility-scale storage projects using Tesla Inc. batteries in southeastern Australia. And in 2019, a blaze at an energy storage facility in Arizona injured four firefighters.
Leading automakers are investing billions of dollars to transition away from gas-powered cars, while energy storage systems are being added to electricity grids to help integrate more solar and wind and meet ambitious climate goals. Executives from both industries are realizing that batteries — widely seen as a key technology to enable the shift away from fossil fuels — aren’t entirely free of risks. Even 30 years after the first lithium-ion cells were deployed in camcorders, the sector remains a developing industry that's continually seeking to balance performance, safety and costs. Fires, while rare, hit laptop computers and cell phones in the early days of lithium-ion battery-powered consumer devices. Now they are in much larger products — and any fire becomes a case study in what to do better.
“Lithium-ion is a technology that has really been a revolutionary advance for us as a society," said Haresh Kamath, director of energy storage and distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. “I think there are some surprises about some of the challenges that we are going through."
Batteries are typically quiet and efficient, Kamath said. “Then in rare cases, when you have a problem — it’s very dramatic."
The 2019 Arizona fire, which caused a major explosion on the fringe of suburban Phoenix, was an “extensive cascading thermal runaway event, initiated by an internal cell failure within one battery cell," according to an investigation on behalf of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility. APS said it has put in place new safety and operational standards designed to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The GM recall and recent storage system incidents will see the industry increase focus on safety, including on the materials and components used in cells, said Max Reid, a London-based analyst at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. and previously a research scientist focused on areas including batteries. Fire incidents remain rare, according to Reid, even as battery production booms. Tesla contends that gas-powered cars remain many times more likely to be involved in blazes than its own electric models.
Batteries are here to stay. Global passenger EV sales may reach almost 5.6 million units in 2021, up about 83% from 2020, thanks to high sales of electric cars in China and Europe, BloombergNEF said in a report published last week. The global energy storage market is also on track to install 11 gigawatts by year end, double the volume installed in 2020. The U.S. will see the biggest growth through 2025, led by installations in California, Texas and the Southwest.
Battery-related fires present unique challenges for first responders, including the potential for electric shock, thermal runaway and battery reignition. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it is sending investigators to Coral Gables, Florida, where a Tesla Model 3 crashed into a tree and was engulfed in flames, killing both occupants. The NTSB investigation will focus on “the operation of the vehicle and the post-crash fire that consumed the vehicle."
*Sept. 4: Moss Landing Energy Storage Facility experienced an overheating issue with a limited number of battery modules, said Vistra Corp. in a statement. Teams from Vistra, battery manufacturer LG Energy, engineering and construction firm Fluence, and other external experts are conducting the investigation. The 300 MW facility remains out of service. Joel Mendoza of the North County Fire District said that a number of racks overheated to the point of triggering smoke alarms and the fire sprinkler system, but the detection and suppression systems were effective in cooling the batteries and kept batteries from igniting and going into thermal runaway.
*Aug. 20: GM announced an expanded recall of the Chevy Bolt, saying that GM discovered manufacturing defects in certain battery cells produced at LG facilities. On Monday, GM said it has found a fix and will begin replacing defective batteries in October. *Aug. 4: LG Energy issued a recall for about 10,000 home energy storage batteries, intended to be paired with solar panels, after five reports of systems smoking and catching on fire. One incident resulted in an injury, the company said.*July 30: During initial testing, a fire occurred within a Tesla Megapack at the “Victorian Big Battery" in Australia. There were no injuries and the site remains disconnected from the grid. An initial assessment by fire crews found the blaze was likely caused by an electrical fault. Further investigations are being undertaken, including by owner Neoen SA and Tesla.With Mark Chediak and David Stringer