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.