So far this year, there have been 108 lithium-ion battery fires in New York City, which have injured 66 people and killed 13, up from 98 fires that had injured 40 and killed two at this time last year. The most recent was a fire at an e-bike shop that killed four people near midnight on the morning of June 21 and left two individuals in critical condition and one firefighter with minor injuries. According to Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, it was “very clear” that the fire was linked to lithium-ion batteries, and she warned New Yorkers that such devices could be very dangerous and typically exploded in such a way that rendered escape impossible, as opposed to slowly catching on fire. The volume of fire created by lithium-ion batteries is incredibly deadly. The NY fire department issued a warning on Twitter, advising citizens to keep devices with lithium-ion batteries away from exits or windows, avoid using batteries that lacked “approved safety certifications,” avoid charging batteries overnight or when they are not present and to not use damaged or after-market batteries. In just three years, lithium battery fires have tied electrical fires and have surpassed blazes started by cooking and smoking for major causes of fatal fires in New York City.
Across the United States, over 200 micro-mobility fire or overheating incidents have been reported from 39 states, resulting in at least 19 fatalities, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The problem is particularly acute in densely populated areas like New York City where 23 people have died in battery fires since 2021. In London, lithium battery fires are the fastest-growing fire risk, with 57 e-bike fires and 13 e-scooter fires this year.
Reasons for the Increased Fires
The reasons for the increased NYC fires include a lack of regulation and safety testing for individually owned devices, hazardous charging practices (such as using mismatched equipment or overcharging) and a lack of secure charging areas in a population-dense city with numerous residential buildings, where most fires start. New Yorkers rely on e-bikes and other battery-powered devices to make deliveries or use them in other ways to earn a living.
Cheap e-bikes and e-scooters became popular during the COVID pandemic when public transit was compromised and the demand for food deliveries skyrocketed. New Yorkers that purchase them typically charge the batteries in their apartments. However, once a lithium battery overheats or malfunctions, the speed and impact of lithium battery fires make them particularly perilous, especially when people live in close quarters. E-bikes of questionable origin have made it difficult for victims to sue as batteries are often destroyed in fires, and even when they are recovered, they can lack identifying marks to trace back to a specific manufacturer or distributor who can be held legally responsible. Some NYC landlords have banned e-bikes and other e-mobility devices in the wake of fires.
Beginning in September, New York City leaders will ban the sale of e-bikes and other e-mobility devices that fail to meet recognized safety standards—the first such ban in the nation. City and fire officials have also pushed for greater state and federal oversight of the devices, and have shut down illegal battery charging stations, worked with food delivery apps to educate workers and shown public service messages with exploding batteries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has increased its oversight of e-mobility devices, urging companies to “comply with established voluntary safety standards or face possible enforcement action.”
Since 1991, Lithium batteries have been used commercially and have had a history of sparking fires in Dell notebook computers, Samsung smartphones and hoverboards, leading to huge recalls. But after years of research, lithium batteries have generally become safer. Inside a lithium battery, a number of small cells are bundled together. When the battery is used, lithium ions move between the electrodes inside each cell, generating an electrical current. The danger occurs when a cell goes into “thermal runaway,” a chain reaction in which heat develops extremely quickly, creating a threat of fire and sometimes explosion. A cell can be sent into thermal runaway by overcharging, a manufacturing defect or even the heat from an adjacent cell in the battery pack that is already in thermal runaway.
In 2019, after a Citi Bike fire, battery safety became a priority for NYC’s bike-share program. The program uses only batteries that have been certified to safety standards and have built-in sensors to monitor their condition in real-time, as well as a shut-down switch. In the warehouse, each battery is inspected and charged in a rack with fireproof concrete dividers. Since these protocols were added, there has not been a major battery fire at Citi Bike. Fire officials also revised the city fire code, which now requires buildings to provide safety measures, like a dedicated charging room with a sprinkler, when more than five e-bikes are charging. The fire code, however, does not cover the individual use and charging of e-bikes, and fire inspectors do not enter private dwellings to check for safety violations without a warrant.
Fire officials had been aware of the dangers of lithium batteries for years. They initially focused on highly regulated batteries in energy storage systems, which hold backup electricity for buildings. There is market pressure, however, on manufacturers to add more energy to batteries, which can push safety limits. The batteries in e-bikes contain far more energy than in cell phones and, as a result, are more potentially destructive in a fire.
More powerful batteries are only part of the reason that so many e-bikes and e-scooters are catching fire. Electric cars and energy storage systems require far more energy and yet have fewer fires. The difference, according to battery and fire safety experts, is that those industries are closely regulated and have to go through several layers of testing to show their products are safe. Until recently, e-bikes and e-scooters have not received similar scrutiny.
The rash of deadly explosions and blazes in New York City are linked to the lithium-ion batteries in E-bikes and E-scooters. The batteries are generating fires as many of the bikes and scooters are of questionable origin and do not meet standards, their owners use hazardous charging practices such as employing mismatched equipment or overcharging, and there are few secure charging areas, resulting in charging in densely-populated apartment areas. Regulators, lawmakers and fire officials need to be on top of procedures and regulations to ensure that battery fires are contained as the demand for lithium-ion batteries grows due to Biden’s electrification of the U.S. economy to meet his net zero climate goals.