There is no doubt that in 2018, safety was one of the top talking points in the energy storage industry. With the recent energy storage station fire in South Korea, the country’s 16th such incident, safety has once again struck a nerve within the industry. In the following article, the China Energy Storage Alliance takes a look at this accident as well as the Korean government’s response to see what lessons China can learn for the safety and development of its own energy storage industry.
1. South Korea’s 16th Energy Storage System Fire
In early December 2018, an energy storage project at a cement factory in South Korea’s North Chungcheong Province caught fire, resulting in 4.1 billion won (3.63 million USD) dollars in damage. This was the 15th of such fires in South Korea in 2018, and 16th total fire as of December 2018. Worldwide, the fire caused fresh anxiety within the energy sector regarding the safety of energy storage systems.
2. Why Have Fires Been So Frequent Among Korea’s Energy Storage Systems?
In regards to the frequency of energy storage system fires in South Korea, experts have cited the government’s hurried push for energy storage applications as the cause. Prof Jeong Yong-hoon of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology notes that one of the chief causes is government subsidies aimed at energy conservation and the increase of spending on renewables, which has caused numerous companies and institutes to implement energy storage as quickly as possible, without proper consideration for safety and stability.
3. How Can Korea Manage the Issue?
Korea’s Trade, Industry, and Energy Bureau had already begun safety inspections on the country’s 1253 energy storage projects. At the time of the Chungcheong cement factory project fire, the bureau had already completed inspections on 669 energy storage stations, and recommended individual users, companies, and other organizations stop use of the 584 remaining energy storage installations across the country that had not yet undergone inspection.
Of the 16 energy storage project fires, half of the energy storage stations were linked with solar PV generators. Due to safety already becoming an issue of concern, the South Korean government has required energy storage installers to take stronger safety measures, such as increased use of monitoring systems and other measures. However, since the implementation of greater safety measures increases system costs and adds to the burden on already high renewable energy prices, it is quite possible that South Korea is likely to lose motivation to expand the use of renewable energy for a period in the future.
4. Lessons for China
Don’t panic. The safety of energy storage installations can be ensured with proper engineering methods, and there is no reason to fear the safety of these systems. Past accidents have occurred mainly as a result of a lack of strictness in regard to technological thresholds and safety measures.
Don’t blame accidents simply on the choice of batteries. It often appears that the primary cause of accidents has been the flammability of Li-ion batteries combined with thermal runaway. However, most issues have occurred not because of the battery, but due to an electrical accident. Safety is a complicated issue, and placing blame on the choice of battery is to simple of an answer, as the supporting system is equally as important.
Don’t sacrifice safety measures to save on costs. Current domestic energy storage project bids have prices near to the cost price and require projects to begin in a relatively short time period. While low initial costs limit the amount of money that can be invested in safety measures, rushed submission of payment also shortens testing and verification periods, factors which both make it difficult to determine if safety issues are present. Therefore, one of the major challenges for the energy storage industry is to ensure safety while keeping technology costs at an acceptable level.
Safety standards and related regulations must be established as soon as possible. After an accident happens, the root cause of its occurrence must be determined, and accident management and prevention solutions must be put in place. Missing or incomplete standards and regulations should be researched thoroughly and put into action by their respective regulatory bureaus. Industry organizations such as CNESA have begun work research and planning standards, inspection, and certification methods for energy storage systems. At present, CNESA has been drafting standards for the evaluation of storage systems and begun trials of such evaluation methods, with the goal of encouraging safe and healthy development of energy storage systems.
Thorough verification and safety assessments must be completed before a project is put into operation. In recent years, Li-ion battery projects in China, South Korea, and Belgium have seen fires, though mainstream Li-ion battery producers in Europe and the United States maintain relatively low accident rates. Some projects have seen safe operations for more than 8 years. Internationally, much experience in energy storage has already transitioned into regulations and standards. What this means in that although Li-ion batteries carry the risk of flammability and thermal runaway, with the proper management methods and an increase in safety thresholds, testing, and verification methods, the safe use of Li-ion batteries can be ensured.
5. Hopes for 2019
In 2018, we saw China’s energy storage market see tremendous growth in many areas. In 2019, we hope to see more industry members and related agencies using the lessons and experiences from 2018 to increase energy storage safety management, continue the push for standards and regulations, and help to move energy storage to a healthier and more ideal development.
Author: Yue Fen Translation: George Dudley