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  • Writer's pictureTim Spears

Hazards of Lithium-Ion Battery Storage: Lessons from the Otay Mesa Facility Fire



Summary of the Incident


In a recent event, a fire erupted at the Gateway Energy Storage facility in Otay Mesa, highlighting the significant risks associated with lithium-ion battery storage systems. The initial blaze broke out on a Wednesday afternoon, prompting an evacuation warning for nearby businesses and a shelter-in-place order for a nearby state prison. Despite the fire being brought under control, it reignited the following night, illustrating the challenge of managing thermal runaway in such systems. Firefighters used advanced technology to monitor the area and mitigate further risks, but the incident underscores the ongoing hazards posed by lithium-ion battery storage facilities​​. (Winkley & Nikolewski, 2024)




Understanding Thermal Runaway


What is Thermal Runaway? Thermal runaway is a chain reaction within a battery that causes it to heat up uncontrollably, often leading to fires or explosions. This process can be initiated by several factors, including electrical, thermal, or mechanical abuse of the battery cells​ (ECMag)​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.


How Does it Happen? Thermal runaway can occur when a battery cell is damaged or stressed beyond its limits. This can be due to overcharging, excessive heat, or physical damage. Once one cell goes into thermal runaway, it can trigger neighboring cells, leading to a cascading failure​ (Jensen Hughes)​.


Why is it Dangerous? The danger lies in the rapid escalation of the fire and the release of toxic gases. Lithium-ion battery fires can reignite hours or even days after the initial incident, as seen in the Otay Mesa fire. These secondary fires can be just as hazardous, if not more so, than the original event​​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.


Fire Department Response: Utilizing Technology and Expertise


In response to the Otay Mesa fire, the local fire department employed a range of advanced technologies to manage the situation. Firefighters used drones and unmanned robots to monitor the fire, measure air quality, and take temperature readings from a safe distance. This approach allowed them to manage the fire effectively while minimizing exposure to toxic fumes and potential explosions​​ (Winkley & Nikolewski, 2024).


The fire department also set up inflatable pools for decontamination and used a sprinkler system to douse the batteries with water continuously. These measures were crucial in preventing further escalation and protecting the health and safety of the responders​​ (Winkley & Nikolewski, 2024).


The Importance of Fire Prevention and Community Risk Reduction


Hazards of Lithium-Ion Battery Energy Storage Lithium-ion batteries, while efficient and widely used, pose significant fire hazards. The potential for thermal runaway, toxic gas release, and explosions requires robust fire prevention strategies and community risk reduction measures​ (Jensen Hughes)​.


Fire Prevention Strategies


  1. Advanced Detection Technologies: Utilizing early warning systems like off-gas detection and thermal imaging cameras can provide critical alerts before a fire escalates​ (ECMag)​​ (Jensen Hughes)​.

  2. Battery Management Systems (BMS): Monitoring voltage, current, and temperature can help identify and mitigate abuse factors early​ (ECMag)​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.

  3. Environmental Controls: Maintaining optimal temperature and humidity conditions is essential to prevent battery degradation and potential fires​ (ECMag)​​ (Jensen Hughes)​.


FAQ: Addressing Common Concerns


Q: How long can a lithium-ion battery fire last?


A: Lithium-ion battery fires can last for several hours to days, with the potential for secondary fires occurring long after the initial blaze is extinguished. Continuous monitoring and cooling are essential to manage these incidents effectively​​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.


Q: What are the main risks for first responders?


A: First responders face significant risks from toxic fumes, explosion hazards, and the difficulty of extinguishing thermal runaway fires. Using advanced technology to monitor the situation from a distance can help mitigate these risks​ (IAFC)​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.


Fire Department Response Considerations


  1. Rapid Fire Growth and Explosion Hazards: Consider the potential for rapid fire spread and the risk of unburned battery gases increasing the flammability of smoke, leading to backdraft situations​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​​ (IAFC)​.

  2. Thermal Runaway Recognition: Recognize signs such as white or gray battery gas and low-hanging clouds. Avoid approaching or entering structures suspected of thermal runaway without proper precautions​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​​ (IAFC)​.

  3. Strategic Apparatus Positioning: Avoid parking fire apparatus in front of potential vent points like garage doors to reduce the danger from possible explosions​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​​ (IAFC)​.

  4. PPE and Safety Protocols: Don full structural PPE, including self-contained breathing apparatus, before conducting a size-up of the incident​ (IAFC)​​ (U.S. Fire Administration)​.


How Prepared is Your Community?


With the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries in various applications, it's crucial for communities to assess their readiness to handle such incidents. Are your local fire departments equipped with the necessary technology and training to manage lithium-ion battery fires effectively?


The Otay Mesa fire incident serves as a critical reminder of the hazards associated with lithium-ion battery energy storage and the importance of robust fire prevention and community risk reduction strategies. By leveraging advanced detection technologies, maintaining strict environmental controls, and equipping first responders with the necessary tools and knowledge, we can mitigate the risks and protect our communities from such dangerous events.


References


Conzen, J. (2023). Jensen Hughes. Mitigating lithium-ion battery energy storage systems (BESS) hazards. Jensen Hughes. Retrieved May 17, 2024, from https://www.jensenhughes.com/insights/mitigating-lithium-ion-battery-energy-storage-systems-bess-hazards


Everon Solutions. (2023). Mitigating Fire Risks in Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS). Electrical Contractor Magazine. https://www.ecmag.com/magazine/articles/article-detail/mitigating-fire-risks-in-battery-energy-storage-systems-(bess)


IAFF & UL Solutions. (2023). Considerations for Fire Service Response to Residential Battery Energy Storage System Incidents. Retrieved from IAFF


U.S. Fire Administration. (2023). Responding to Fires that Include Energy Storage Systems (ESS) Using Lithium-Ion Battery Technology. Retrieved from USFA


Winkley, L., & Nikolewski, R. (2024, May 17). Fire flares up again at battery storage facility in Otay Mesa. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved from San Diego Union-Tribune

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