Is this the end of battery storage? Industry braces for “massive brake” from new standards

Controversial new battery installation rules that the industry claims will make energy storage more expensive and less accessible to Australia’s millions of solar households have been published by Standards Australia.

The standard, which has been five years in the drafting, aims to fill a “gap in safety guidance” for the nascent Australian home energy storage sector, particularly around concerns about potential fire hazards presented by some battery chemistries.

Called AS/NZS 5139:2019, Electrical installations – Safety of battery systems for use with power conversion equipment, it was described by Standards Australia on Friday as a “key improvement for the sector” aimed to ensure systems were safe, consistent, and reliable.

But finding a middle ground of reasonable and necessary protection of consumers and an industry crippling blanket rule thrown over a multitude of different technologies and chemistries, has proven difficult.

As we have reported, an earlier draft of the new standard, that threatened to effectively ban the installation of lithium-ion battery systems inside Australian homes and garages altogether, was scrapped in late 2017 after a major industry backlash.

Two years on, and despite the promise of closer industry consultation, many major battery storage manufacturers argue the revised and now published version of the standard is not much better than its binned predecessor.

Of particular concern is the requirement for all home battery systems – even those rated by Standards Australia as having negligible fire risk – to install complicated and costly fire proofing measures on installation.

These measures include the use of compressed concrete sheeting – compulsory for installations on any walls connected to habitable rooms – and restrictions ensuring that a battery is not installed too close to any doors, windows, ceilings, stairs, or un-associated electric appliances.

For well established companies like Tesla and Sonnen – which between them have installed hundreds of thousands of home batteries in the US and Europe, none of which have spontaneously combusted, to date – these measures are confounding.

“Storage is (now) going to be really hard, really complicated, and really expensive,” said Sonnen Australia’s James Sturch, who has represented the now Shell-owned battery maker in the Standards Australia process.

“It’s going to put a massive massive brake on the entire industry.

Sturch estimates that the new rules will adversely affect at least 75 per cent of all battery installations for every company, and add a minimum average cost of about $1000 to the installation of most systems.

On top of that, there will be a lot of systems – particularly, ironically, the larger ones like the Tesla Powerwall 2 and sonnenBatteries that are already enclosed in their own fire proof containers – that will going to almost impossible to install at all inside the majority of Australian homes or garages.

Battery makers also argue that the rule could have the opposite of the desired effect, by encouraging customers to see all storage systems as the same, regardless of the efforts the manufacturer may – or may not – have gone to to make their product safe.

This standardising effect means customers will tend to focus on price, over a product’s safety or other technical specifications – particularly if they are already forking out extra money for fire proofing on installation.

The overriding message of the rule, says Sturch, is “you’re all new, you’re all the same, you’re all unproven technology.
“Therefore consumers will say, if they’re all the same, we might as well go for the cheapest

“We’re just going to look a nameplate. …This safety standard has the ability to do the opposite [of what was intended],” he said.

For its part, Standards Australia has argued that any standard is better than no standard, when it comes to consumer safety, and that amendments can – and will – be made.

“Although there were alternate technical positions raised throughout the process, this can occur in any consensus project,” said Sandy Atkins, the head of the technical committee responsible for the standard.

“The work calls for consideration of available information, safety objectives and the growth of new technology in complex areas,” he said.

“The work on battery storage standards in Australia will continue, with this being a new standard it is expected there will be future refinement as the industry evolves”, added SA head of stakeholder engagement, Daniel Chidgey.

“Given there has never been an Australian standard for this new technology, developing this guidance has been a huge task and is a testament to the dedication of those involved,” he said.

Industry group the Smart Energy Council said it welcomed the new standard as a necessary step to protect consumers, but would be looking to make changes to some of its clauses to bring it in line with its own “Best Practice” guide.

“We remain concerned about the section of the standard relating to fire safety and the negative impact that will have on installations fully assembled systems from top ten manufacturers,” said SEC CEO, John Grimes.

“The SEC has indicated to Standards Australia that we will be seeking an early and fast tracked amendment process to remedy the flawed section and to address other issues that will inevitable arise as the new standard is implemented.

“SEC continues toward on the Version 2 of the Battery Best Practice Installation Guide which is referred by the new standard.

“This standard is much advanced on the original Draft rejected in 2017 and we will be running workshops in November for installers and retailers to explain the implications of the new standard.”

Fellow industry body, the Clean Energy Council, said that it would focus its attention on supporting its members to fully understand the new standard and how to implement it, while also working to amend some of the parts it did not agree with.

CEC chief Kane Thornton said this included clause 4.2.4.2 and clause 5.2.4.2 – which set out the requirement for protection against the spread of fire and clearance around a battery installation.

“Having an effective battery installation standard will help limit the installation of dodgy, higher-risk batteries, ensuring consumer confidence in the safety of batteries and the industry’s continual growth,” Thornton said.

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