The new standard for battery storage goes too far, says sonnen technical director Australia-New Zealand James Sturch. “It’s going to affect every single one of our installations,” he tells EcoGeneration. “It’s treating all products the same. I can understand why it’s happened, but it’s an installation standard and there should have been a product standard first. That’s what it boils down to.”

The standard has finally been brought into life after a five-year gestation period, which itself is an issue, Sturch says, because over that time the industry has been buzzing with new technology, new entrants, aggressive marketing, corporate failures, ambitious forecasts and frequent updates and improvements in capacity and versatility.

“When they started writing the standard the products were very much in their infancy in this country,” he says, and standards and processes in other markets around the world were also on a steep development curve. Sturch’s feeling is that the standard has been developed as if energy storage was viewed through a prism that showed the technology back then – and doesn’t allow for the rapid evolution of the intervening five years.

“It stayed in that place of looking at products and going, they’re all scary, they’re all new, they all use technologies which are unproven,” he says.

James Sturch says a battery product standard would have made more sense than an installation standard. “They’ve put the horse before the cart.”

Apples, oranges and batteries

Yes, lithium-ion batteries can explode. It’s happened in phones, laptops and those two-wheeled hoverboard scooter things kids were getting around on a few years ago. You’d expect the same chemistry, on a much larger scale, would – and should – demand a rule-maker’s attention. But Sturch says it’s apples and oranges.

“They’ve put out an installation standard when really they should have been working on a product standard,” he says. “They’ve put the horse before the cart. That’s the issue. That’s the nuts and bolts of it.”

Battery systems are all very different, as has been made clear by the ongoing trial of energy storage assets by ITP Renewables in Canberra. So far, 18 models from 15 manufacturers have been put through the wringer, charged and discharged over and over like amateur thieves in a criminal court. Many have been pulled out or replaced before the conclusion of 36-month test periods because of failure or insolvency. Not one has blown up or caught fire. (A sonnen battery will be tested in phase three of the trial.)

Different battery models from different brands perform differently and have different functions. Some come paired with an inverter and others can only operate if matched with an inverter from the same maker. Batteries one day might become a commodity, where they are all essentially interchangeable – but that day is a long way off. In the meantime the standard, Sturch says, views batteries as all alike.

But a battery must go through an inverter to be connected to a solar system, and an inverter “is covered by a whole realm of safety standards and testing and verification,” he says, “so you already have this inherent level of safety and security built into the system.”

Hot topic

To account for fire risk, the new standard (AS/NZS 5139:2019, Electrical installations – Safety of battery systems for use with power conversion equipment) states that compressed concrete sheeting is compulsory for installations on any walls connected to habitable rooms. Also, batteries must not be installed too close to doors, windows, ceilings, stairs or un-associated electric appliances.

Sturch can speak for sonnen but he also has a pretty good idea of how his major competitors are tracking. Sonnen, LG Chem and Tesla have about 250,000 systems installed globally, “and to my knowledge none of us has ever had any issues with fire”. His guess is between 20,000 and 25,000 batteries have been installed in Australia.

One is left to wonder, at what point does “new” technology become “proven” technology? “If the three leading brands have more than a quarter of a million installations, are we still unproven, or are we proven?”

Business speed bump

Homeowners in some states are being offered very generous subsidies to include storage, and some installers have told EcoGeneration quite bluntly that without handouts residential batteries do not make economic sense. Some buyers will always feel inclined to opt for the cheapest technology, and Sturch reckons the new standard will only encourage this mentality.

Installation costs, on his estimate, will increase between $500 and $1,000 to allow for compressed concrete sheeting. If buyers feel compelled to recover return on investment by picking a cheap battery they might want to pause for a moment and consider, he says, that some things are cheap for a reason.

Fires are bad news. They wreck lives and they can wreck the battery business. But a probability of fire was put into the standard without any evidence, he says. So how can you go backwards and challenge an unproven hypothesis? “It’s really hard to argue that something that doesn’t exist isn’t an issue.”