Another lithium-ion battery has exploded, this time at a U.S. energy-storage complex. Local regulators are now demanding answers, companies are investigating the cause, and analysts are wondering: Could more blazes threaten the future of lithium-ion — the only technology that has proven capable of bringing battery storage into the mainstream?
“If these fires continue to occur, it doesn’t bode well for the industry in the short term and the storage market will almost certainly slow down,” said Ravi Manghani, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. “As other technologies mature and costs fall, it would certainly erode lithium-ion’s advantage.”
Here’s the issue for lithium-ion: while not inherently dangerous, when handled incorrectly, a potential hazard can occur. The electrolytes used today are flammable in the presence of oxygen, said James Frith, a London-based analyst at BNEF. While batteries are sealed from external sources of oxygen, some cathodes can release oxygen within the cell under high temperatures.
The explosions are coming at an inopportune time for the industry. Nothing has done more to fuel the global battery boom than the plunge in lithium-ion prices. Costs have fallen to a level at which batteries can compete against conventional power plants, and everyone from solar developers to utilities to homeowners are buying them to shore up intermittent renewable energy supplies.
There is a “wide opening — a pantheon of new technologies that are aiming to beat lithium-ion from both a performance and cost perspective,” said Jeff Chamberlain, CEO of Volta Energy Technologies, an Exelon Corp.-backed company that evaluates and tests new energy-storage applications.
Lithium-ion will be a powerful incumbent to beat. The technology has made up more than 85 percent of the world’s annual energy-storage deployments since 2016, according to BloombergNEF. And other battery technologies carry their own potential hazards. But with solid-state sodium-ion batteries and others on the move, it is just a matter of time before we begin to see widespread replacement of lithium-ion batteries.
“The U.S. energy storage market nearly doubled in 2018 and is expected to double again in 2019,” Energy Storage Association Chief Executive Officer Kelly Speakes-Backman said in a statement about the task force. “This marks an ideal time for the industry to demonstrate their commitment to corporate responsibility.”