This past week, I spoke at The Battery Show in Novi, Michigan on the subject of electricity stationary storage (ESS) safety.  One of the panels on which I participated discussed the development of testing and certification procedures for ESS systems.  My fellow panelists were Serena Lee of ConEdison, Ibrahim Jilani of UL LLC and Dan Gorham of the National Fire Protection Association.  The consensus of the panel was that significant additional testing of ESS systems needs to be done in order better to protect the general public and first responders from the various hazards that ESS systems inherently pose.

But who is going to facilitate and pay for the testing?  Several of my fellow panel members noted that funding for testing programs is in short supply.  While there is hope that the Department of Energy will underwrite some additional testing programs, relying on funding from Washington is an uncertain game.  Private companies have little incentive to test for safety, as customer purchase decisions for ESS products tend to focus almost entirely on price and performance.

Industry’s main strategy for encouraging testing of ESS systems is to develop standards and related certification schemes for ESS systems.  Several such efforts are underway.  Safety certification is essentially a binary system:  Products that test to a certain standard can be certified and will have the opportunity to go to market.  Those that do not pass will not.

But a binary pass-fail system, which is familiar in the field of consumer electronics, may not be the best way to encourage the development of safer ESS systems.  The potential safety hazards of an ESS system are far greater than those of an average home appliance or handheld electronic device.  ESS systems are also far more complex and technologically diverse.  Manufacturers and other innovators are continuously developing new types of batteries and ESS systems.  The potential hazards and relative safety of such systems can vary widely.

A simple, binary pass-fail system may not be well-suited for measuring the safety of very different ESS systems.  A set safety standard encourages manufacturers to manufacture to a minimum level of safety rather than to seek continuous safety improvement in a rapidly changing technology.  Even worse, a pass-fail system will always be somewhat misleading, as it does not alert the public to the inherent safety hazards involved in any storage of high voltage electricity.

A better approach might be that taken by New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  Created in 1978, NCAP created the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal law. One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest. More stars equal safer cars.

The 5-Star Safety Ratings Program provides consumers with easy to understand information about the relative safety of complex and inherently unsafe systems (automobiles) offered for sale in the marketplace.  But the real genius of the program, and the reason for its tremendous success, is that it provides a new and highly visible metric around which manufacturers can compete.  The result has been continuous improvement in the safety of automobile design, as automobile manufacturers compete intensely with each other, not just on the basis of cost and performance, but also on the basis of safety.

A binary, pass-fail system of certification for ESS systems threatens a dangerous disconnect between public interest and private industry.  While minimum safety standards are necessary, real progress in ESS safety–and real safety for manufacturers from potentially burdensome government regulation–will come only when safety becomes an inseparable part of the economics of energy storage.  The goal of the regulatory system must be to make it more profitable for a manufacturer to build and sell a safer ESS system than one that is marginally less safe.  A binary, pass-fail system alone will not get us there.