September 22, 2022: UK legislators have been urged to back draft legislative proposals that could see lithium ion battery storage sites designated as “hazardous” — and subject to tough new fire safety and planning controls.
If enacted, the proposals could influence future regulatory development in other areas of the world as investment in battery storage projects gather pace, industry insiders have told BESB.
Former government minister Maria Miller (pictured) told the House of Commons on September 7 that existing regulations did not require battery storage planning applications to be referred to the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive or the fire service but, under her proposals, these agencies would become statutory consultees in the planning process.
“We need lithium ion battery storage facilities, but they must be seen correctly for what they are: highly complex, with the potential to create dangerous events and hazardous substances.”
Meanwhile, Miller urged the government to announce “an immediate review” of battery storage projects already granted planning permission, along with existing battery storage plants, “to ensure that they do not pose a threat to residents or the local environment”.
“We cannot allow lithium ion battery storage facilities to continue as they are and become another legacy fire issue, with all the risks that that entails to the lives of the people we represent and the environment we want to protect,” she said.
“Lithium ion batteries are “innocuous when they function normally, but if they fail and thermal runaway occurs, there is a complex chemical reaction.
“The only way to stop a battery fire is to cool it down with a constant stream of water and wait for the fire to go out, which might take days, creating huge quantities of water containing highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid and copper oxide — by-products of battery fires,” Miller said.
“These toxic chemicals cannot be allowed to seep into watercourses, because they would cause immense environmental damage.”
Miller said that while only a handful of battery storage facilities were already operating in the UK, more are scheduled to come on stream and 366 projects are under construction or awaiting planning permission.
She said the National Fire Chiefs Council was also calling for battery storage developers to engage at the earliest opportunity with local fire and rescue services.
Miller also told MPs of international incidents involving lithium battery storage facilities, including the April 2019 fire at Arizona Public Service’s 2MW/2MWh McMicken energy storage facility in Surprise, Arizona, where she said fire officers “suffered life-changing injuries when the unit exploded”.
That incident prompted concerns among regulators about the use of lithium batteries at utility scale.
In 2020, the state of New York amended building fire safety standards to include specific regulations relating to the design and installation of energy storage systems. However, according to the New York Solar Energy Industries Association, stringent fire department regulations still “prohibit the use of most energy storage systems”.
Miller said: “Thermal runaway events occur in almost every country in which battery storage is used. Even South Korea, a pioneer in the development of large-scale battery storage, experienced 23 major battery fires between 2017 and 2019.”
Miller, the MP for Basingstoke, presented her proposals under the ’10-minute rule bill’ — which allows backbench MPs to make their case for new legislation.
She secured enough support among fellow MPs for the proposals to move ahead and to be given a second reading in March 2023.
However, a spokesperson for Miller’s office told BESB on September 22 that Miller was continuing to discuss draft legislation with colleagues, which could see the proposals raised in parliament again before the end of this year.