Marblehead fire chief briefs light commission on lithium-ion battery hazards

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Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous, powering everything form electric vehicles and electric toothbrushes to laptops and iPhones. Demand for lithium-ion energy storage systems is on the rise even in Marblehead. 

Many residential lithium-ion battery systems are installed in homes and store electrical energy generated by a household’s solar panels. These energy-storage systems’ benefits include:

  • Less dependency on the grid 
  • Long life and fast charging
  • Mitigate a household’s carbon footprint 
  • Lower electric bills
  • Store more power with less space and use it during peak periods

“Battery storage technologies are essential to speeding up the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy,” writes National Grid in a lithium-ion fact page. “Battery storage systems will play an increasingly pivotal role between green energy supplies and responding to electricity demands.”

Shortcomings of lithium-ion technology

While on the whole safe when properly installed and used, lithium-ion batteries have a serious shortcoming: They are susceptible to overheating, smoking and leakage. Worst-case scenarios include explosions and fires.

Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland appeared before the Marblehead Municipal Light Commission, expressing fire-safety concerns around energy storage systems in town. No uniform protocols and process for residents who want lithium-ion installations exist.

“I’m trying to listen to your side,” Gilliland said. “I’m hoping you’ll listen to mine, so we can work together before we rush into this.” 

He added, “That perhaps we look at what we have, and some of the processes that are out there and move forward.”

Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland speaks about fire hazards associated with lithium-ion battery storage systems. [MARBLEHEAD NEWS PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD]

In October of 2019, the state put out regulations governing commercial lithium-ion energy storage systems over 20 kilowatt hours. Over the past couple months, the State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey and the Division of Professional License Commissioner Layla D’Emilia have received calls from municipal building and fire-prevention officers looking for guidance as energy storage system installations climb.

“The advancement of stationary battery storage of electrical power generated by photovoltaic systems have outpaced prescriptive requirements,” wrote Ostroskey and D’Emilia. “It was not anticipated that energy storage systems installed in one-and-two family dwellings would exceed 20 kilowatt hours.”

Energy storage systems have become very popular, very quickly, and market demand is accelerating the advancement of lithium-ion technology. According to Bloomberg, the energy-storage market is predicted to rise 30 percent annually until 2030 and require more than $262 billion.

Marblehead Municipal Light Department General Manager Joe Kowalik said the fire concerns are quite valid and very real. Solar and battery storage system installations touch three main areas in local government: Building, fire and light departments.

“These are new devices that require cooperation from multiple departments because all of this has a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We are all learning this together – there is no handbook that we can refer to.”

Kowalik added, “We must make sure they get deployed safely.”

Light Commissioner Jean-Jacques Yarmoff and Fire Chief Jason Gilliland in an exchange during a recent Marblehead Municipal Light Commission meeting.

Light Commissioner Jean-Jacques Yarmoff spoke to the need for a process that guides installations.

“Some already have batteries,” said Yarmoff of residents who’ve installed their own. “Others are telling us, ‘I would like a battery.'”

Gilliland didn’t mince words when he expressed a strong discomfort with Marbleheaders installing lithium-ion energy storage systems in their homes.

“Obviously, there are batteries out there, but there is no regulations in place,” said Gilliland. “Regulations come out of bad episodes, and these happen over time.”

Risk vs. reward

Lithium-ion battery fires do not respond to the chemicals in fire extinguishers, and they can reignite after firefighters dump water on them.

Gilliland shared a Tesla recently ignited in New York. The fire source was the lithium-ion battery in the electric vehicle.

“They had to bring a crane in, lift up the Tesla and put it in a dumpster flooded with water,” Gilliland said.

Light Commissioner Lisa Wolf said gas-combustion engines pose a fire hazard, too.

“Zero risk is not an option,” said Wolf told the fire chief. “Of course we want to help you feel comfortable, [but] there are risks associated with every technology.”

Gilliland supports mitigating carbon footprints, but he asked people “not to have tunnel vision.”

“You’re trying to do your part: Make sure that we watch out for the residents. Give them alternatives. Try and keep their rates down,” he told commissioners. “We want to help you with that.”

But he added, “Green is green until it’s not.”

Mike Hull, chairman of the Marblehead Municipal Light Commission, recommended a task force look into energy storage systems and come up with recommendations.

“It would be a lot like we did with solar,” he said. “We sat down and hashed out a document for solar.”

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