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Suffolk Closeup: Lithium batteries need regulation

The Suffolk County Legislature this month unanimously passed a measure “to add a certification requirement to the sale of lithium-ion storage batteries for electric-assist bicycles and other powered mobility devices.” 

The certification that their electrical systems are safe would need to come from an “NTRL” (National Testing Recognized Laboratory) of the federal government’s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) or from “UL” (Underwriters Laboratories) or by “such other safety standard … established by rule in consultation with the fire department.”

The author of the bill is Legislator Dominick Thorne (R-Patchogue) who for nearly 30 years has been active in fire and emergency services.

County Executive Ed Romaine said after its passage at a legislative session June 4 in Hauppauge: “I look forward to signing this measure into law.”

Thorne said: “Public safety remains my number one priority and we are acting in the face of a clear danger before a single Suffolk County fatality has occurred as a result of potential lithium-ion tragedies,” such as have “already” occurred “in the tri-state area.”

Of great concern, said Thorne at a press conference at which he was joined by area fire chiefs and members of the county’s Fire Rescue and Emergency Services operation, are faulty lithium-ion batteries imported from overseas and sold cheaply.

“You may see one of these batteries for $5 and think, ‘What a deal,’” he said. “However, these batteries can ignite and you can lose everything — your family, your house, your loved ones, your neighbors.”

The measure, to be an addition to the Suffolk County Code, would be enforced by the County fire marshal, the Suffolk County Police Department, town and village police forces and local code enforcement officers. The penalties, it says, for the first violation is a “fine of not more than $1,000” and “for each subsequent violation … on a different day within two years,” a penalty “of not more than $2,000.”

A fatal accident on Shelter Island in 2021 involving an e-bike caused a focus of attention on them on the Island. The Shelter Island Police Department subsequently ran an ad in the Reporter headed: “Know the Law, Electric Bikes and Scooters.”

It included how New York State “law states only persons 16 years and older can operate an e-bike.”

An essay online by professors and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina about how “lithium-ion battery fires are a growing public safety concern” says: “In today’s electronic age, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous. Compared with the lead-acid versions that have dominated the battery market for decades, lithium-ion batteries can charge faster and store more energy for the same amount of weight. These devices make our electronic gadgets and electric cars lighter and longer-lasting — but they also have disadvantages. They contain a lot of energy, and if they catch fire, they burn until all of that stored energy is released. A sudden release of huge amounts of energy can lead to explosions that threaten lives and property.”

In a statement released by Thorne’s office, Scott W. Davonski, executive director of the Suffolk County Fire Academy, said the New York City Fire Department last year “reported 268 fires involving lithium-ion batteries, 150 injuries and 18 deaths.”

Joseph Fagan, president of the Fire Marshals Association of Suffolk County, said: “While the proliferation of lithium-ion battery technology and electric mobility devices brings about numerous benefits, it also introduces significant safety concerns. No party knows these concerns better than the fire service, be it the firefighter who struggles to extinguish a battery fire, a fire inspector who observes unsafe battery storage in a building, or a fire investigator who must investigate and document the damage caused by a fire. This resolution provides our members with a much-needed enforcement tool to prohibit the sale of unregulatedlithium-ion batteries throughout the county.”

The Thorne measure says “there is very little government regulation regarding the safety of these lithium-ion batteries” and “it is the responsibility of the County of Suffolk to protect the health and safety of its residents by requiring the sale, lease, or rental of only … certified storage batteries for powered bicycles and powered mobility devices to prevent them from potentially catching fire or exploding.”

Are there alternatives to lithium-ion batteries?

I put that question to Google and there appear to be several possibilities.

A battery manufacturer, Alysm Energy, in Woburn, Mass. declares on its website: “The global market for electric scooters, motorbikes, motorcycles and three-wheelers is set to triple by 2030. Today, over 60 million are sold every year, and most run on fossil fuels. Battery electric models are in demand, but buyers are extremely cost-sensitive and concerned about battery fires. Lithium-ion batteries found in many two wheelers regularly catch fire due to poor heat dissipation or overcharging — a major problem in cities such as New York …”

“Our low-cost, non-flammable batteries are poised to be an ideal solution for the two- and three-wheeler market, maximizing performance and profit margins while greatly reducing the risk of fires.”

The company gives details about: aqueous metal oxide batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, solid-state lithium batteries, sodium-ion batteries, ion-air batteries, flow batteries, nickel-hydrogen batteries and liquid metal batteries. 

An article on alternatives in the British magazine, New Scientist, says: “Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be a single solution to the problem of how to replace lithium-ion batteries, which is why people have been dreaming up all sorts of variations…”