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The big battery boom hits another roadblock: fire-fearing cities

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The new era of big batteries has already drawn scrutiny after fiery electric-car crashes across America and Europe. Now, US city planners are worried about the same risk of hard-to-control blazes as these power-storage units make their way into basements and onto rooftops.

[SAN FRANCISCO] The new era of big batteries has already drawn scrutiny after fiery electric-car crashes across America and Europe. Now, US city planners are worried about the same risk of hard-to-control blazes as these power-storage units make their way into basements and onto rooftops.

“You can have these things go on fire, and then hours or days later, they can reignite,” presenting a new challenge for first-responders, said Paul Rogers, who led New York City’s effort to establish battery safety standards until he retired as a lieutenant with the fire department earlier this year. Firefighters - “if they act inappropriately - they could get killed,” he said.

Improvements in energy storage are revolutionizing how and when electricity is used. Batteries now fuel everything from hand-held devices such as smartphones to the electric cars proliferating around the world. In the latest trend, racks of batteries stacked up to the size of studio apartments are being installed in urban spaces like office buildings and shopping malls. The units allow buyers to tap into lower-cost and renewable energy and supply back-up power during widespread outages.

But the same chemistry that makes lithium-ion batteries so effective also poses a hazard. While fires are rare, an overheating unit can ignite. And while water can put out a battery blaze, it takes a lot more of it than usual. A few high-profile fires involving everything from mobile phones and laptops to electric cars and even jumbo jets has some city officials calling for more caution and clearer standards before storage units end up in buildings.

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An effort by New York to review the safety of these battery systems has already limited their deployment, according to the research group Electric Power Research Institute. At this point, not a single lithium-ion battery system has been installed inside a building there, though there have been four approved for outdoor spaces, New York utility Consolidated Edison Inc said.

For its part, New York’s fire department says it isn’t deliberately slowing installations. The agency just wants to ensure “these installations meet appropriate safety standards,” said Ronald Spadafora, the department’s chief of fire prevention.

The way Mr Rogers puts it: “A lot of code officials, they don’t know what to do with” the lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries have gotten a lot cheaper -- dropping almost 80 per cent since 2010 -- as demand increased for electric cars. That’s increased the appeal for utilities to integrate batteries that can store the intermittent energy produced by wind and solar farms. Commercial building owners can deploy batteries to buy energy when its cheap, and then use it to power air conditioners and lights during hot summer days when electricity prices surge.

California, New York and Massachusetts have set targets to increase the amount of storage on their grids, and New York City wants to have 100 megawatt-hours deployed by 2020 -- enough to power anywhere from 25,000 to 80,000 homes for an hour based wide-ranging estimates of residential electricity use.

As rare as battery fires are, periodic blazes in e-cigarettes, laptops and even battery packs on one of the most sophisticated jetliners in the world, the Boeing Co 787, have led to government restrictions and frightening headlines. In 2012, an energy storage system made up of lead-acid batteries caught fire next to a wind farm in Hawaii.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has opened investigations into two recent fires involving Tesla Inc cars, along with an earlier blaze last year. And the agency charged with setting vehicle safety standards, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said it was gathering information on a recent episode in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Swiss police are examining a fatal Tesla crash last week that triggered a fire.

Incidents like those have some government officials urging more research into the risks of having even bigger batteries in buildings. A unit can be as small as a school locker and as big as a standard 8-foot-by-20-foot shipping container.

“The installation of lithium-ion and other new energy storage technologies offer exciting opportunities, but also present significant safety concerns,” Mr Spadafora said. “Installations at scale necessary to power buildings and building systems potentially present very serious fire and life-safety hazards.”

In San Francisco, the fire department says lithium-ion batteries in buildings with capacities larger than 20 kilowatt-hours must comply with city and California fire codes for stationary battery systems. Rules include placing the batteries in separate rooms with automatic sprinklers, ventilation and smoke detection systems.

New York has been more cautious in green-lighting installations, partly because America’s largest city is so densely urban. The fire department said it has taken time to develop its own guidelines to allow for researchers to conduct tests that would help determine the appropriate safety measures.

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