Lithium Ion Risks, Physical and Financial

Amidst all the positive hype about battery storage of late, driven largely by Elon Musk’s unveiling of large lithium-ion batteries aimed at home storage of rooftop solar (the Tesla Powerwall) and utility scale electricity backup, at little-noticed article passed my desk (virtually, of course). There has been plenty of debunking of Musk’s batteries, and plenty of claims as well. Those have all focused on the economics, which are murky. We will get to them shortly. But what about safety?

Claims Journal, an insurance trade publication, carried an article late last month noting that “at least 18 airlines have banned freight shipments of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries this year. Pilots are pushing for the cells to be taken off all passenger flights until they can be transported more safely.”

The article cited cargo fires such as one that caused a UPS aircraft “to crash into the desert near Dubai in 2010.” A UPS Boeing 747 carrying 81,000 lithium batteries caught fire and crashed after it left Dubai in September of 2010.

Readers with good memories will recall Boeing’s 2013 grounding of all of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the company’s top-of-the-line model, after its lithium-ion batteries caused fires to the airplanes in Japan and Boston. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found numerous problems with the manufacture of the batteries Boeing was using. The New York Times reported late last year, “The battery problems underscored concerns about the use of a new and potentially hazardous technology aboard commercial airliners — powerful lithium-ion batteries — and what steps plane makers and regulators should take to make sure they are safe.”

The insurance magazine noted that the attraction of lithium-ion technology – higher power density in a smaller package – “also increases the safety hazard if they ignite.” The magazine cited a paper by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry that lithium-ion battery fires can reach temperatures of 850 degrees C. The Federal Aviation Administration reported 11 incidents of fire, smoke, extreme heat or explosions from lithium-ion batteries reported to them in 2014.

What are the odds that your $7,000 Powerwall will catch on fire? Nobody really knows at this point, as not enough Tesla cars using the battery that will be the heart of the system have been on the road long enough for insurance-industry quality data. So, if you are thinking about buying, you might consult the company that insures your home.

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But you might also want to use a sharp pencil to take a look at what you get for that $7 grand you have to put into the product (which includes installation and an inverter to convert direct current from the battery to alternating current for your home) that will hang on the garage wall. It doesn’t provide enough power to take a typical home off the typical utility grid, but a bit of short-term, partial-house backup until grid kicks in again. A generator from Home Depot (running, gasp, on gasoline) will do the same job for a lot less.

BloombergBusiness reported, “While the pairing of home batteries with solar power makes deeply intuitive sense, the problem is that it doesn’t make financial sense. Not now, not anytime soon, and definitely not in the U.S.” Brian Warshay at Bloomberg New Energy Finance said, “The battery-in-every-home idea—not only do I think it doesn’t make economic sense, I don’t think it’s necessary. Having a centralized grid is incredibly useful and incredibly efficient.”