French multinational utility Engie is probing the cause of a fire that last month burned through a lithium-ion battery system during its commissioning in Belgium. 

Images of the flames engulfing an Engie Ineo battery container at Engie’s test site in Drogenbos, near Brussels, were shared on social media and even made it onto the local BX1 news

Engie Benelux spokesperson Olivier Desclée confirmed nobody was hurt in the blaze that broke out on the morning of Saturday, November 11. 

“The firefighters arrived rapidly at the site and have very rapidly extinguished the fire, [which] did not extend to the other containers or other parts of the site,” he said. “The firefighters have continued to water the containers in order to cool them down, which was the case a bit later in the early afternoon.”

Despite the rapid response, the Engie Ineo lithium-ion battery system was damaged seriously enough to represent a “total loss,” he said. 

Only “light external, peripheral and easily repairable damage” was caused to two neighboring containers, containing battery systems from GE and Alphen, he said.

None of the systems were connected to the grid when the fire broke out, he confirmed, and the facility was fully equipped with fire detection and extinguishing systems. Evidently these systems failed to extinguish the flames, which can be seen emerging from the container alongside a plume of gray smoke in the YouTube video of the incident.

Engie is not planning on changes to its Drogenbos test center safety protocols until the root cause of the fire has been established. “For the timing, it is difficult to say,” said Desclée.

The incident marks a setback for Engie’s plans to test batteries for high-voltage grid ancillary services at the Drogenbos Energy Storage Park, on the site of a former gas-fired power station.  

The park was launched in July as Belgium’s first battery test facility, with capacity to store 20 megawatt-hours of renewable energy. 

“Such a capability could help Elia, Belgium’s transmission system operator, increase the stability and reliability of supply,” said Pascal Renaud, Engie’s chief European maintenance and operations officer, in a company communication on the launch. 

Although Engie planned to test systems from four manufacturers, each with a maximum capacity of 6 megawatts, it is understood only Ineo, GE and Alfen products had been installed when the fire broke out. 

Engie was aiming to test the battery systems under identical conditions. The company ultimately plans to use Drogenbos as a test bed for other energy storage technologies, including compressed air, flywheels and redox flow batteries. 

“The project will give Engie a clearer understanding of how batteries work and enable it to test different energy models and gain experience in battery procurement, use and operation,” said the company.

The incident appears to be the first battery blaze to befall Engie’s Ineo division, which is described as “a solutions integrator for connected cities and regions, as well as a key player in electrical engineering fields.”

It is unclear where Ineo sourced the batteries for its Drogenbos system, but in the past the division has worked with France’s Saft on the provision of lithium-ion batteries for the French army. (Note: after publishing, a spokesperson for Saft confirmed that the battery did not come from the company.)

And while the cause of the fire remains uncertain, the accident is likely to heighten concerns over the safety of lithium-ion battery systems. The chemistry has been implicated in several scares over the years. 

A containerized battery system caught fire in Arizona Public Service territory near Flagstaff in November 2012, local media reported

In 2015 the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering posted an alarming video of lithium-ion batteries sparking and flaring on exposure to a naked flame. 

And in June it emerged that lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics devices were catching fire on aircraft once every 10 days on average. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was withdrawn from the market last year because its lithium-ion batteries kept burning up.

System design expert Eric Lewis, of London-based consultancy Enstore, urged system developers to step up safety efforts related to lithium-ion batteries. 

“The most important step is to design a lithium-ion battery module so that a fire in one cell does not cause adjacent cells to overheat -- that can then lead to a meltdown,” he said. “The market for lithium-ion batteries is extremely competitive; the correct design features to avoid a meltdown are available, but at a small increase in cost.”

This could lead some system designers to choose a battery that could become a fire hazard, he warned.