Mass electrification; caution before speed

As the world looks to reduce its reliance on carbon intensive fuel supplies, many people see mass electrification – powered by renewable sources – as the future.

However, this transition may not be simple to achieve. This isn’t to dampen the enthusiasm behind the transition, but it’s important that stakeholders understand the risks involved. Once the risks are understood, processes can be implemented to build resilience. A failure to understand these risks could leave organisations exposed – a worry given how enormous an undertaking the move to mass electrification will be. 

While many government and business leaders would like the transition to an electric world to happen overnight, moving too quickly may heighten transition risks. As it stands, carbon heavy fossil fuels still make up 80% of the world’s energy mix.1 At the current adoption rate, renewables will only be able to satisfy half of the predicted increase in global electrical demand over 2021-22.2 It’s important to note that this is just the increase, not even considering the baseline fossil fuel usage. 

The huge effort it will take to turn the tide on this situation will come with risks. This is evident when we look closer at the adoption of lithium-ion batteries for energy storage systems, an important technology in the move towards mass electrification. It is often seen as a way to provide clean energy on an industrial scale. The technology is, however, associated with risks which need to be managed and mitigated. 

Firstly, batteries need to be carefully positioned and orientated, as even a single battery can fail and trigger an event called ‘cascading thermal runaway’. This occurs when an initial cell overheats and catches fire, due to an internal short circuit. This then triggers a process where adjacent cells also overheat and catch fire in a dangerous chain reaction, spreading across a facility. 

No business wants to experience this kind of devastating situation. Plus, there is little environmental value to adopting lithium-ion batteries if they could result in an energy and resource intensive rebuild. Thankfully there are certain technical measures which can limit the chances of thermal runaway. One of the most important steps comes at the initial implementation stage; arranging battery cells in specific ways to minimise risk. 

By ordering battery cells into small accessible power banks, businesses can ensure that the impact of a potential fire is limited. The arrangement means that only small number of cells will potentially catch fire, reducing damage to the wider facility. At FM Global we help our clients understand the risks they are exposed to in this space and how to mitigate them, leveraging the benefits that compartmentalisation entails. Compartmentalisation involves ensuring that batteries aren’t located close together. Instead, they need separating with firewalls and for the facilities that house them to hold an effective fire protection system. These protective measures can minimise the risk of cascading thermal runaway. They will therefore generally make a fire event a lot more manageable, both for on-site staff and local fire services, if required. 

Risk mitigation methods like compartmentalisation and fire suppression systems will be key in the transition towards mass electrification. To minimise disruption, organisations should focus on the specific risks that will impact their journey towards using fewer fossil fuels. Understanding these is a vital first step towards a more resilient electrified world. 

More widely, industry and society generally must handle the issue collectively and with ambition – the significant challenge posed by mass electrification needs a proportionate response. Truly a full re-engineering of our current systems and infrastructure is needed. Businesses and governments alike will need to reconceptualise energy production and the importance of resilience in this production. The process is not impossible, but it will be the challenge of our age – adopting renewables in a reliable, robust, and resilient manner.