Energy Bill [HL] - Report (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 28th March 2023.
Lord Foster of Bath:
Moved by Lord Foster of Bath
58A: After Clause 114, insert the following new Clause— “Review into fire risks of photovoltaic panels and lithium-ion batteriesThe Secretary of State must, as soon as reasonably practicable, lay a report before Parliament considering the fire risk of photovoltaic panels, lithium-ion batteries storage facilities and similar technologies that the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”
My Lords, in Committee, I tabled an amendment that proposed to extend the zero VAT that is offered for some green energy items to the batteries used to improve the efficiency of solar panel arrays. Unfortunately, the Minister was non-committal, but, having written to the Chancellor, I found that he was rather more enthusiastic, and I was delighted to see in the recent Budget that that measure will now go ahead, so I have not had to bring that amendment before your Lordships’ House again.
However, because of my involvement with solar panel arrays and batteries, quite a number of people got in touch with me to draw attention to their concern about some safety issues with solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, not least in relation to fire. For example, Zurich Insurance recently did some research that showed that, during the last year, fire crews across England were called out 10 times a month, on average, to deal with solar panel-related fires. It gave an example of a claim that it had to deal with in 2020 for a solar panel fire in a block of flats in Kent which left 30 people temporarily homeless and caused £1.5 million-worth of damage.
But there is a much bigger problem with lithium-ion batteries, which you find in many household products, of course—our mobile phones, for example, and even those singing birthday cards that we sometimes get. Perhaps most significantly, more and more of them are in the increasingly large number of e-scooters and e-bikes. As there is a growing number of those batteries, there are growing fire problems, because lithium batteries provide high energy densities, which mean that they can create severe fires with very high temperatures and exothermic reactions, creating significant challenges for our firefighters. Research, again from Zurich Insurance, found that there has been a 149% increase in the number of e-bike and e-scooter fires since 2021. Research shows that fires resulting from other devices powered by lithium batteries has increased by 63% in that time.
Zurich Insurance has sent me details of several incidents involving lithium batteries, including an £84,000 claim for a scooter that went up in flames in a garage and a £13,000 claim for an e-bike that exploded in a customer’s bedroom. AXA, the insurance company, has given me evidence that shows that, in just the two months of June and July last year, it was involved in claims of around half a million pounds.
The London Fire Brigade and other fire brigades have expressed concern. In June 2021, 60 London firefighters were needed to tackle a blaze on the 12th floor of a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush caused by a faulty e-bike battery. In July of that year, five people in Walthamstow were hospitalised by a fire started by an e-bike.
The other fascinating thing is that, until recently, the number of fires in waste disposal sites had been going down. Sadly, that trend has now been reversed, and the evidence shows that somewhere in the region of 48% of all landfill site fires are now caused by lithium batteries. The cost to the waste disposal people and the fire brigades is something in the region of £158 million a year to deal with just that.
Clearly, there are very significant problems which need to be addressed, but we do not want to stop using these technologies; indeed, we want to move rapidly forward, exploring ways to capitalise on how best we can make use of them as sources of new clean energy. However, as we increasingly use these green energy sources, we have to acknowledge that new and emerging risks are coming down the track.
I accept that there are many rules and regulations that already govern the sale and use of these products, but the warning signs are there that the regulations we currently have—those designed to keep us safe—are not keeping pace with the real-world application of these new technologies.
Interestingly, the National Fire Chiefs Council recently said, very significantly, that
“the problem has ‘blind sided’ conventional systems processes and solutions”.
In other words, we need to look for a new way forward—and that is all that the amendment I am proposing does. It asks the Government to look into the issue and to bring forward a report as soon as possible. Nothing could be simpler than that, but it is what a lot of people would like to see happen. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for bringing this information to our attention. Some interesting reports documenting the risks are available, and I refer particularly to the report from the Institution of Fire Engineers on solar power fire risk and to batteryfiresafety.co.uk.
I have a couple of points to add to the comments already made as to whether it would be worth directing information about the storage of the batteries. It should be highlighted in particular that batteries are often stored in garages next to parked cars, which can have similar battery systems, and will not always be easily accessible.
The risks of lithium ion batteries from a fire safety perspective apparently have been well documented. However, the other element is that the risk with lithium ion batteries is not just fire. Once the battery fails—I think the term is “runs away”—the cells usually start to give off smoke. Thermal runaway is the chemical process within the battery which produces heat, as well as flammable toxic chemical gases, very quickly, often before any flames arise.
I think it is fair to say that, although the information is out there, it has not been properly documented. I wonder whether the health and safety considerations of the increasing use of these batteries and solar panels have been taken on board. Does the Minister think that there is a problem and, if the answer is yes, what does she propose to do about it?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his amendment on requesting a report into the fire risks of photovoltaic panels, lithium ion battery storage facilities and similar technologies. I was delighted to hear of his welcome in the Budget for the VAT exemptions.
First, I reassure the noble Lord that the health and safety regimes surrounding net-zero technologies are a priority for the Government. All electrical equipment requires safe installation and use. The Government recognise the importance of net-zero technologies such as electricity storage and solar PV in their ability to help us to use energy more flexibly and decarbonise our electricity system cost-effectively.
The data collected so far indicates that the risk from solar PV fires is low. However, it is right that we work with the industry to understand why any incidents happen and help to stop future occurrences. Over a three-year period and an overall cost of £135,000, the Government commissioned the Building Research Establishment to develop new guidelines for PV system installers, designers and the fire services, with the aim of making solar PV even safer. In February this year, the RISC Authority, the Microgeneration Certification Scheme and Solar Energy UK published an updated joint code of practice on recommendations for fire risk prevention in UK solar systems. Grid-scale lithium ion battery energy storage systems are covered by a robust regulatory framework, which requires manufacturers to ensure that products are safe before they are placed on the market and installed correctly, and that any safety issues found after products are on the market or after installations are dealt with.
In 2018, the Government set up an industry-led electricity storage health and safety governance group, which is responsible for ensuring that an appropriate, robust and future-proofed health and safety framework is sustained as the industry develops and electricity storage deployment increases. The Government are currently working with the group to support the development of a product and installation publicly available standard for domestic small-scale battery storage and guidance for grid-scale storage. They will both be published this year.
Most of the specific issues of e-scooters and bicycles fall within the remit of the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles, and I shall ask it to write to the noble Lord. I can also confirm that Defra will soon publish a consultation on battery recycling.
I do not believe that a specific report on fire risk of photovoltaic panels, lithium ion battery storage facilities and similar technologies mandated by the Secretary of State is necessary. While I welcome the noble Lord’s intention, we believe that working alongside industry and the fire services to manage specific risks is the appropriate way forward. It ensures that these vital technologies are installed, operated and decommissioned in a safe way, while still delivering the best outcomes for consumers. I hope that the noble Lord can recognise the Government’s sustained commitment to enabling the deployment of net-zero technologies in a safe and sustainable way.
In addition, on the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, about lithium ion batteries and their ability to combust, I visited last week a very clever packaging firm called Tri-Wall in Monmouth, which has developed packaging specifically for lithium ion batteries to be transported by air safely. The packaging itself will detect any change in heat in the batteries that it contains and change the structure of the packaging into water that will put the fire out before it even gets out of the packaging. Very clever technologies are being developed specifically around lithium ion battery transport and storage.
I hope that, with those few reassuring remarks, we can ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the time is late; I shall be very quick indeed. I was well aware, of course, of the work that has been done looking at the package of arrangements around solar panels and their batteries. I really wanted to use it as a peg on which to hang the wider issue of all forms of lithium batteries, in particular. I am pleased to hear about the 2018 established group. It would be very helpful if we could see some of the output of that. I am grateful, too, to hear that there are going to be new standards, but the truth is very simple: you can have all the standards you like, and the products may be okay, but if they are not used appropriately and not decommissioned appropriately, then real problems exist, and that is what is happening. There are a huge number of fires in our landfill sites because people are not doing what they are meant to do in disposing of batteries. We have to find a way forward. That is why I wanted a report. I am disappointed that the Minister is not prepared to go further, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 58A withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 10 pm.