Danger of Lerwick battery fire forces SSE to halt connection

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A Lerwick man is warning of a danger of explosion and fire in a giant battery installed at Lerwick Power Station which could burn for weeks and require the town to be evacuated.

Retired marine engineer Theo Nicolson has been running a one-man campaign to highlight the potential perils of siting one of Europe’s biggest batteries right next to fuel tanks at the Gremista power plant.

The one MegaWatt sodium-sulphur (Na/S) battery, which cost £3.3 million, is already in place inside a newly built large brown shed. It forms a central part of Scot­tish and Southern Energy’s pion­eering Northern Isles New Energy Solutions (NINES) project to stren­gthen Shetland’s electricity grid to allow more wind turbines to be connected.

But sodium-sulphur batteries carry a major fire risk. NGK Insul­ators, the company which built the Lerwick one, has experienced three fires in Japan – the most recent of which was in September and lasted for two weeks before it was totally extinguished. Only 174 of the batteries have been built and NGK has suspended production until it gets to the bottom of the latest accident.

As well as the hazardous chemicals inside the battery the Lerwick Power Station site is home to nearly 13,000 tonnes of fuels and chemicals stored in large tanks.

Mr Nicolson fears the battery and fuel mix at Gremista is like having “a bomb in the midst of the community”. He lives just a few hundred metres from the power station.

In early March he even told Scottish and Southern’s chief executive Ian Marchant the battery was “a very expensive, risky irrelevance” to improving the Shetland grid.

Now, after nearly nine months of making little progress with his concerns Mr Nicolson appears to have been vindicated. NGK has advised customers around the world not to use their batteries while it tracks down the cause of the most recent fire and looks to solve the problem.

SSE has agreed not to power up its Lerwick battery and is being required by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to carry out an extensive safety case assessment for it.

This week Mr Nicolson told The Shetland Times he was not against the battery and supports renewable energy projects. But he fears for safety and has serious doubts as to whether the battery will ever be safe enough to activate on the site.

“I do have genuine concerns for the health and safety of folk around the immediate area of the power station,” he said. “If it was to be energised . . . and went on fire and ignited the fuel tanks then in the worst-case scenario it could have burnt down the power station. Where would we be left with that situation?

“Because we don’t know what it would do to the air that we are breathing we might have a situation that you have to evacuate Lerwick!”

Details of what actually happened in Japan in September and early October are still scant. The fire happened in a 2MW battery belonging to the Tokyo Electric Power Company and installed in Joso City. It took eight and a half hours to bring under control and was not declared extinguished for two weeks. Nobody was injured and the fire did not spread to other companies’ premises.

On Tuesday NGK said it and the fire authorities were still investigating. It admitted to two previous fires involving its Na/S batteries, one in February last year and during testing at its plant in 2005.

Mr Nicolson said he was amazed the Lerwick battery project had got this far without SSE or any of the authorities appearing to take the dangers seriously, including the HSE, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Shetland Islands Council. Since March he has been alerting all of them to the danger of fire or explosion.

He discovered SSE did not require planning permission or hazardous substances consent and nor was it hindered by the HSE.

The batteries are potentially very dangerous, operating at temperatures of up to 350 degrees Celsius. Sodium burns or explodes on contact with water so the batteries have to be well protected from moisture. They are sealed to make fires unlikely.

The battery shed at the power station is just metres from the two biggest of six fuel oil storage tanks that are dotted around the site along with tanks for chemicals and lubricants. The biggest tanks hold up to 3,800 tonnes.

Ironically SSE had to apply to the council for retrospective hazardous substances consent for the tanks in 2008.

The council also required Shetland Charitable Trust to get planning permission last year for a big hot water tank in the power station site to store water at up to 98 degrees Celsius, which is another part of the NINES project.

In June, Trevor Johnson from the HSE in Edinburgh told Mr Nicolson his organisation was “satisfied” with the approach SSE was taking on management of the health and safety risks. He said the battery design was “mature” and the hazards and risks were “well understood”.

Mr Nicolson thought he had done all he could. But then came the fire in September. He waited a month before notifying the HSE. “They knew nothing about it,! he said.

Mr Johnson had thanked him for bringing the information to the organisation’s attention and he made inquiries with SSE Power Distribution. In an email he told Mr Nicolson: “The risk of fire was an element of SSE’s safety case for Lerwick Power Station. Due to the incident in Japan they intend to complete ancillary works at the power station but will not energise or commission the battery until such time as they obtain an understanding of what caused the fire, how it developed, the fire-fighting issues involved and the implications (if any) for the installation at Lerwick Power Station.”

The problems are a major setback for SSE which has gone to the effort of gaining approval for the NINES project from the electricity regulator Ofgem, building the specially designed shed and shipping the battery to Lerwick.

A ceremony to mark the switching-on of the battery had been due to coincide with last Wednesday’s Dynamic Shetland conference in Lerwick but it had to be scrapped. A detailed talk on NINES by SSE future networks and policy manager Stewart Reid contained little reference to the battery other than confirming that it had been installed. He made no mention of the problems caused by the fire.

SSE has previously spoken about eventually increasing the battery power from 1MW to 10MW if it proves effective.

NINES also involves three big wind turbines between Gremista and Dales Voe which would generate power to heat the new water tank for the district heating system and to heat hundreds of homes through advanced Dimplex heaters which can store heat up to 24 hours.

Mr Nicolson remains concerned about the way SSE was able to establish the battery on site without the authorities scrutinising the dangers. He posed the question: could SSE bring in a nuclear fuel cell and not require permission or raise an eyebrow among the various agencies meant to ensure community safety?

John Holden from the SIC planning department explained this week that certain bodies, such as power companies, benefit from permitted development rights which mean they do not have to apply for planning permission for some works, such as installing equipment.

He said the council had accepted SSE’s case for the battery and its building to be treated as permitted development. “We were invited to provide a view on an installation on the site which we considered met with the terms of deemed planning consent . . . and that was all that we had a remit to do.”

Mr Holden said SSE considered that it did not need to seek hazardous substance authorisation from the council.

Generally, public safety matters are the responsibility of government agencies like HSE.

This week an HSE spokesman said: “HSE has been in discussions with Scottish and Southern Energy who will be producing a detailed safety case assessment for the installation of the battery. It has been agreed that HSE will have the opportunity to review this safety case once it has been completed.”

An SSE spokeswoman confirmed that the battery would not be energised until the company “can be sure that a similar situation cannot arise at our site”.

She said: “We do not yet know how long the investigation will take, nor when we will be in a position to commission the battery. Our plan is to complete the ancillary works on site and then to await the outcome of the incident investigation before deciding how to proceed.

“This is clearly disappointing but we feel it is the correct course of action.”

On a positive note she said the battery delay would have “no effect” on the NINES project as a whole.

SSE declined to comment on Mr Nicolson’s warnings about possible evacuation of Lerwick in the event of a fire and the likelihood of Shetland losing its power supply should the power station be damaged or have to close down during the emergency.

Mr Nicolson’s concerns have come to the attention of MP Alistair Carmichael who is planning to raise the matter with the HSE.

He said: “Obviously this battery’s not presently connected so local people need have no fear for their safety. That said, we must be prepared to learn the lessons from other parts of the world and while the possibility of an incident similar to that in Japan remains un-assessed it would be reckless to proceed any further.

“I shall be in contact with the Health and Safety Executive to establish from them what they have done thus far and what they intend to do before giving a green light to the commissioning.”

One of the councillors for Lerwick North, Allan Wishart, has been in touch with Mr Nicolson and said on Wednesday he intended taking the matter up with SSE.

There is considerable enthusiasm for the NINES project in Shetland, not least from the owners or prospective owners of wind turbines who might get the chance to sell their power into the improved local grid.

SSE’s subsidiary Scottish Hydro Electric Power Distribution (SHEPD) has estimated the battery would allow up to 400 kiloWatts of power from extra small-scale wind turbines could be accommodated onto the grid until the company gains confidence in the system with a view to increasing that level.

SSE said it hoped to reveal next summer which applicants had been successful in being offered grid connections. It is concentrating on small-to-medium-sized community turbines.

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