The landslide of lithium-ion batteries making it to market means that fires caused by them are set to surge, says the chief commercial and product officer of Energy Vault, who warns that only providers who put safety first will “survive”.
“The amount of lithium-ion that has been deployed and will be deployed is gigantic,” Marco Terruzzin, a mechanical engineer who joined Swiss- and US-based Energy Vault in 2019 and previously worked for RWE among others, tells Recharge. “The number of fires will go up exponentially.”
“If there is a fire in an isolated substation that is one thing,” he said. “But if you have a fire in a dense, heavily populated area that can become much more problematic.”
Energy Vault is perhaps best known for its gravity energy storage system, which uses cranes to haul huge bricks into the air to store energy and then release them for discharge – similar to the approach of large-scale pumped-hydro storage.
But for short-term energy storage needs the company also uses lithium-ion batteries, which dominate the sector. A recent analysis from consultancy McKinsey found that demand for them could grow 30% annually up until 2030, when the supply chain would reach $400bn in value with a market size of 4.7TWh.
Their market dominance reflects the fact they pack the biggest punch at the lowest weight of any comparable technology that has reached scale at market. But for all their success they are plagued by a tendency to overheat and catch fire – or even explode.
This runs all the way up from mobile phones, which are barred from the hold of planes for that very reason, through e-motorbikes and e-scooters – “you notice how many… catch fire in apartments,” said Terruzzin – to large-scale energy storage facilities.
There is a “tendency in the industry” according to Terruzzin to only consider price.
When it comes to energy storage facilities, he said that only companies that can “constantly” monitor their batteries with the right operating and maintenance systems will be able to avoid fires.
The prevalence of fires with such batteries means that he thinks only companies that are “adapting the best practices to manage thermal runaway will survive and succeed in this market.”
That is why Terruzzin said his company has dozens of people working on its proprietary software monitoring and diagnostics tools to prevent fires from breaking out in the first place.
The safety issues around lithium-ion batteries are why Terruzzin says that major utilities are looking at energy storage systems like gravity storage that can operate for decades without running the risk of a “hazardous event.”
He stressed that Energy Vault, which is also eying green hydrogen, has a “practical” and “pragmatic” approach, rather than trying to market one specific solution.
For example, Energy Vault also sees green hydrogen as a solution for extra-long duration energy storage. However, Terruzzin said they “mix and match” this with batteries – such as in one deal with Pacific Gas and Electric in the US – because if the grid goes down due to a blackout you need an energy source to “kick in quickly”.
He warned that Europe is clearly “over-relying” on the Chinese supply chain when it comes to the batteries, something that will cause it trouble “in the long term”.
Energy Vault has tried to “avoid that issue” by investing in the manufacturing of batteries in the US, which he added now has a “clear set of incentives” to develop a domestic market for them through its landmark Inflation Reduction Act passed last year.
Broadly speaking he believes lithium-ion is here to stay. Currently, he said it has the “best fit, least cost” for storing energy between two and four hours – “that is a matter of fact.”
“It will stay dominant because it is a very versatile solution.”