Perfectly Safe Energy Doesn't Exist — And That's Fine

On April 16, 2021 in Beijing, China, a battery energy storage facility with a combined 25 MWh of lithium iron phosphate battery units caught fire. The resulting blaze required authorities to mobilize 47 fire trucks and 235 firefighters in total to fight the flames. Tragically, during firefighting operations, a deadly explosion occurred, claiming the lives of two firefighters and injuring a third. A civilian employee remains missing following the accident.

This is far from the first battery-related fire or explosion. In January, an explosion and fire at a battery factory in Hunan Province killed one employee and seriously injured another six. Once a battery blaze has ignited, positive feedback effects can drive increases in temperature and pressure in a process known as thermal runaway, causing persistent and difficult-to-extinguish fires. A Tesla that crashed outside of Houston on April 17th burned for four hours before fire crews finally put out the fire. The abovementioned Beijing energy storage facility fire lasted over ten hours.

These will not be the last accidents involving batteries — and that’s a risk we’re clearly willing to accept. Batteries will play a critical part in ongoing efforts to decarbonize the power and transportation sectors, and isolated fires or explosions will not stop the wide adoption of battery technologies. With global annual electric vehicle sales now in the millions, an astronomical number of battery units are functioning safely worldwide and around the clock. We can rightly recognize such incidents, albeit tragic, are not representative of the technologies as a whole.

But we don’t extend this same kind of leniency towards every energy technology.

Rather, many commentators weigh and discuss the risk of energy-related accident hazards in a highly selective manner. Too often, arguments leap to identify risks as being somehow inherent to specific technologies, as opposed to treating risk as a separate challenge that can be independently managed. Such a misguided approach to thinking about energy and safety not only intensifies partisanship around particular energy technologies but also sets unrealistic and unreasonable expectations that energy could somehow be totally free of any potential for accidents.

From antinuclear activists to NIMBYs to climate deniers, participants spanning the spectrum of political discourse eagerly cherrypick accidents involving technologies they dislike and leverage them to advance preferred narratives. Like the ever-present hand-wringing over turbine-induced bird deaths, an October 2013 fire atop a wind turbine in the Netherlands that killed two technicians has long since been exploited to exhaustion by renewable energy critics. Meanwhile, the two lives lost in the Beijing battery storage explosion alone mean batteries have now caused two more deaths than all the nuclear power plants and spent fuel rods in North America, Korea, Taiwan, China, and Western Europe over decades of operation. Yet, nuclear power opponents continue to invoke two accidents at 1970s-era power plants as supposedly indicative of unmitigable, unacceptable risks inherently and unavoidably associated with nuclear energy.

“Too often, arguments leap to identify risks as being somehow inherent to specific technologies, as opposed to treating risk as a separate challenge that can be independently managed.”

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon fire and oil spill, comedian Bill Maher cracked a joke that has understandably earned a lasting popularity in climate circles: “You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash.” This quote and the spirit it embodies have since been invoked repeatedly in the wake of energy-related accidents. Bill McKibben pointed out in the wake of Fukushima that he would have no need for a Geiger counter should his rooftop solar panels fail, while energy researcher Michael Webber quipped following the Balongan oil refinery explosion in Indonesia that wind farms do not explode and prompt evacuations.

A world running entirely on clean energy will almost certainly be safer. Even so, neither renewables nor the grid-scale battery storage they will rely upon come without some safety and accident risks — not that such risks are remotely disqualifying.

For example, renewables often enjoy a free pass for upstream and downstream impacts associated with their manufacture or waste processing. Solar panels, batteries, and wind turbine components still rely upon intensive processes of mineral extraction, refining, and component manufacturing that involve nonzero industrial and environmental risks. These risks range from hazardous chemicals used in polysilicon factories in the solar supply chain to low-level radioactive waste produced in the process of extracting rare earth elements for permanent magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. Last summer, a refrigerant explosion at GCL-Poly’s polysilicon plant in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region temporarily spiked global polysilicon prices by 50%.

Concerns over environmental and human health consequences from activities ranging from lithium extraction to cobalt mining have consequently fueled anxiety over “green extractivism” and intensified calls for a circular economy. However, even herculean efforts to recycle clean technologies, as envisioned by circular economy proponents, likely cannot avoid undesirable consequences. Once a battery or solar panel retires at the end of its useful life, efforts to dispose of or recycle such products carry their own risks. Processes to recycle battery materials, for instance, involve temperatures of up to 1500°C, toxic byproducts, and strong acid reagents.

Just as importantly, a world running entirely upon clean energy will continue to rely upon a wider range of technologies and fuels than many commonly assume. Several large-scale energy modeling studies investigating what the US power sector might look like under a 2050 net-zero emissions scenario find that even gas-fired power plants — fitted for carbon capture or for co-burning of hydrogen — could continue to play a small but important role in electricity generation in a low-carbon future. A sizable fraction of future clean power generation may continue to come from nuclear power plants. And, when moving beyond the power sector to consider the technologies needed to decarbonize trucking, shipping, agriculture, passenger jets, and heavy industry, solutions will likely leverage some combination of hydrogen, ammonia, carbon capture, biogas, and low-carbon synthetic fuels.

“We need to come to grips with the reality that no scaleable clean energy source produces nothing in environmental impacts but spring water and the scent of flowers.”

Some bullish studies have employed hefty, flawed, and heavily-criticized assumptions to insist that the world can be fully powered with wind, solar, and hydropower alone. But even such utopian, renewables-exclusive scenarios also assume the large-scale deployment of plenty of things that can burn or go boom, from heavy use of batteries for electricity storage and electric vehicles to massive hydrogen consumption for all remaining industrial and energy storage needs. Both hydropower and pumped energy storage also come with their own potential risks, as tragically illustrated by the failure of the Banqiao Dam in China during heavy rains in 1975, killing tens of thousands.

Realistically, a future high-technology, low-carbon society will still very much need furnaces, chemical factories, mines, tankers, and pipelines. Thus a net-zero emissions world will not see the end of refinery explosions or hydrocarbon spills. Clean bio-jet fuels spilled into a lake will still poison fish. Green hydrogen produced entirely from clean energy will still invite pipeline cyberattacks or storage tank explosions. Despite the best efforts of fanatical “all-natural” advocates, unsightly chemical plants will continue to produce useful compounds like sulfuric acid, bleach, chlorine, paint, and printer ink at vast industrial scales.

Thinking about all of these dangers undoubtedly causes anxiety for the reader and leads one to temporarily forget about all of the considerable benefits that modern energy systems and industrial processes make possible. Furthermore, a narrow fixation on uncommon hazards often minimizes the enormous improvements in air quality and the related lives saved and avoided health impacts that shifting to clean energy will achieve. This highlights how accident risk simply isn’t a useful criteria with which to judge different energy technologies. As the recent excitement over falling Chinese rocket debris demonstrated, humans are notoriously bad at objectively, rationally assessing the risk of rare events. But more importantly, there are no universal laws tying specific technologies to inherent levels of hazard.

A more realistic approach involves recognizing that we can manage risk as its own separate, distinct, solvable issue, independent of the technology choices we want to make.

Take, for example, the amalgamation of criticisms leveled against the role of nuclear energy as a clean energy solution — cost, safety, waste, and security concerns. Engineers can and have developed solutions to address these challenges, with newer advanced reactor designs offering their own attractive advantages for some combination of these priorities. Innovative designs utilizing a mixture of fuel with a molten salt coolant or concepts utilizing small coated TRISO fuel particles offer near immunity from meltdown, as liquid fuels cannot be separated from the coolant in which the fuel is already suspended, while TRISO particles can survive temperatures considerably beyond any reasonable accident scenario. Fuel particles also solve many nuclear proliferation concerns, as the need to reprocess thousands of fuel particles, collecting infinitesimally small quantities of fissile material from each pebble, would present a comically difficult challenge. Some reactor concepts produce less waste or can recycle and utilize existing waste. In practice, these all represent separate technical and policy challenges, none of them without solutions.

“Perfectionism that maximizes local safety and minimizes local inconveniences often means saddling others with greater climate and environmental risks.”

Risk reduction is already happening for renewables. Wind developers can now buy modern turbines that can better withstand typhoon-force winds and can repaint them to significantly reduce the risk of killing birds. Turbines now come equipped with rappelling and winch systems that technicians can use to safely descend to the ground in emergency situations. New battery chemistries under development may offer markedly improved protection against fires and explosions. Risks can often be decoupled from the identity of a technology.

Ultimately, we may be too risk-anxious. We need to come to grips with the reality that no scaleable clean energy source produces nothing in environmental impacts but spring water and the scent of flowers.

Modern society utilizes massive quantities of energy, and the energy sector fundamentally represents nothing less than the production and transformation of vast flows of electricity and fuels. That such processes necessarily involve inherent risks should come as no surprise to anyone. We learn from a young age that electricity itself poses some hazards at every point of its transmission and use — from exploding transformers and downed power lines all the way to the consequences of sticking a screwdriver in a power socket. If anything, the audacity of our expectation that energy production and distribution should happen without any accidents whatsoever is a reflection of how successfully energy technologies have managed to insulate people from potential danger.

This by no means is to argue that pursuing a high level of safety is wrong. Gas explosions, refinery fires, and chemical leaks are of course universally unacceptable, and responsible management strives to ensure that such industrial accidents are vanishingly rare. Policies should absolutely seek to reduce pollution, vulnerability to attack, risks to human health and worker safety, and so on. Controlling risks and preventing accidents actually has very little to do with technological choices themselves and everything to do with good engineering, management, accountability, and planning.

We should also recall that all clean energy technologies are far safer than continued reliance on unabated fossil fuels. After all, minimizing risks also should mean accounting for risks from climate change. As the global clean energy transition accelerates, one worries about the cumulative impact of local opposition to this clean energy project or that copper mine out of risk-related fears. Summed up, such effects could seriously slow or paralyze the growth of clean energy while exacerbating global inequities. Perfectionism that maximizes local safety and minimizes local inconveniences often means saddling others with greater climate and environmental risks.

Decarbonization will offer no perfect solutions, and so responsibly managing climate risk arguably means accepting some tradeoffs. Given the high price of climate inaction, a little more bravery and determination when it comes to clean energy technology will undoubtedly leave everyone better off.