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James A.

McDowall

Substation Battery Options:


Present and Future
 Digital Stock, 1996

F or several decades, vented lead-acid batteries have been used


to power dc switchgear and other substation loads. While
they tend to have short lifetimes in the harsher environments of
nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH), lithium-ion (Li-ion), and lith-
ium polymer (Li-polymer). The aim of the article is to provide
an overview of ongoing battery development work and an idea
small distribution substations, these batteries have, on the whole, of the timeframe for commercial availability.
provided satisfactory service. However, the high cost of some
battery maintenance operations, such as water additions, specific Substation Battery Requirements
gravity checks, and connection maintenance, has driven some us- Substation batteries are required to provide reliable power to op-
ers to install valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries in their erate circuit breakers and other protective devices, while also
substations. VRLA technology offers low cost, high energy den- providing for the continuous operation of various low-power in-
sity, and freedom from some maintenance chores. What many us- dication and control functions.
ers have not properly understood is that these benefits come at the Although the loads required for circuit breaker operation are
price of battery life, reliability, and overall cost of ownership. of short duration (typically a few cycles for tripping and closing,
Users have also seen laptop computer batteries evolve from to several seconds for spring charging) the batteries normally
nickel-cadmium through nickel-metal hydride to lithium-ion in provided for this application are not of the high-performance
the space of just a few years. Articles on electric vehicle (EV) type. There are two reasons for this. First, the mix of short dura-
research mention similar batteries, along with more exotic vari- tion, high current switching loads, and continuous low current
eties. It is reasonable to assume that all this research work will control loads often favors medium performance general-pur-
lead eventually to a better battery for substations. But, when will pose battery types, particularly in larger substations. Second,
that happen, and will you be able to afford it? and more important, high-performance lead-acid batteries have
This article discusses the benefits and drawbacks of some of thinner plates and, therefore, a shorter life than their medium
the potential alternatives to vented lead-acid batteries in substa- performance counterparts, and this shorter life would compro-
tion service. These include VRLA, nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd), mise battery reliability.
The control buildings in many larger substations are either
J.A. McDowall is with Saft America, Inc., North Haven, CT 06473 USA. climate controlled or have sufficient thermal inertia that the bat-
4 0272-1724/00/$10.00©2000 IEEE IEEE Power Engineering Review, November 2000
teries are not subjected to temperature extremes. This is not the loss of a few hours of reserve time, but does not completely dis-
case with smaller distribution substations, in which batteries are able the system.
frequently installed in small, poorly ventilated, metal structures. In substation operation, it is highly unusual to install parallel
Substation batteries must be capable of providing reliable oper- battery strings. Indeed, the benefits of doing so would not be the
ation within the expected operating temperature range, even if same as in telephone service. This is because battery efficiency
that range is extreme. decreases rapidly as the discharge time approaches zero. For a
system employing two parallel battery strings that together are
just capable of supporting a specified 1-minute load, the loss of
The Drive to Lower Battery Costs
one string would be catastrophic. The initial voltage drop that is
When sized and maintained in accordance with IEEE recom-
characteristic of lead-acid batteries would leave the system well
mended practices [1] [2], vented lead-acid batteries offer reli-
below the specified minimum voltage almost instantaneously.
able service at a reasonable cost. However, many users view the
To be sure, there are some potential mitigating factors here.
taking of specific gravity measurements and periodic water ad-
The battery sizing may have included an aging factor, a design
ditions as a burden, since this requires specialized training for
margin for load expansion, and/or a factor for low temperature
the maintenance technician and involves personnel risks in han-
operation. If the battery is not operating under the worst case
dling hazardous materials (battery acid).
sizing assumptions, there may be enough margin in a 50% string
Battery discharge testing, long known to be the only absolute
to support the load. The battery may be sized to trip, say, ten
method for determining a battery’s condition, is simply not per-
breakers simultaneously, while in reality it may only have to trip
formed by many utilities, since the cumulative cost of testing of-
a few of these. Finally, there may be considerable tolerance in
ten exceeds the cost of the battery itself.
the system; batteries are often sized to a minimum voltage of
As operating budgets continue to be squeezed, the drive to re-
105 V, while trip coils can operate down to 70 V. The total mar-
duce overall battery costs is likely to increase. In some cases,
gin available will vary from system to system, depending on the
this may involve a scaling back of maintenance and testing oper-
sizing criteria.
ations, thus increasing the risk of unexpected failures. In others,
Summarizing this issue for VRLA batteries, there is a consid-
it may lead a utility to consider alternative battery types.
erable risk involved in installing a single VRLA string in a substa-
tion. If parallel strings are installed, to operate reliably, they must
Valve-Regulated Lead-Acid Batteries be redundant, either by design or by a sufficient degree of conser-
VRLA batteries seem to offer an attractive alternative to vented vatism in the sizing calculation. In building in redundancy, how-
lead-acid batteries. They have typically been marketed with the ever, the main aim of reducing battery costs is compromised.
same 20-year warranty that applies to general-purpose vented Despite the early claims of maintenance-free operation,
batteries, while offering the lure of maintenance-free operation. VRLA batteries require considerable surveillance and testing to
It is certainly true that VRLA batteries are maintenance free maintain a high degree of reliability. IEEE 1188-1996 [3] rec-
with respect to the electrolyte. Specific gravity measurements ommends quarterly internal ohmic measurements and annual
are not possible, and these batteries are designed to be operated discharge testing for VRLA. These measures are largely ignored
throughout their lives with no periodic water additions. The acid by the telephone operating companies because of their low loads
electrolyte is immobilized so that, even if a battery unit is and use of parallel strings, as detailed above. In substation oper-
dropped, no spillage should result. This means that a VRLA bat- ation, however, these practices are doubly important because of
tery in normal operation is inherently safer than a vented unit, so the higher currents involved.
it is reasonable to assign less-specialized maintenance techni- An additional issue with VRLA is the life expectancy. The
cians to care for these systems. batteries that are sold in the United States as having a 20-year
Some utilities have chosen to use VRLA batteries in their life are sold elsewhere in the world as 10-year batteries. Worse
substations, pointing to the similarities between the distribution still, recent reports [4] of VRLA testing indicate serious prob-
system for electric power and that of telephone service. In the lems with premature failures and an actual life, even under fa-
local telephone infrastructure, VRLA batteries are routinely in- vorable conditions, of only 5-7 years. Obviously, a justification
stalled in outdoor cabinets and are subjected to much more ex- for using VRLA that is based on a 20-year life would be in seri-
treme conditions than in substations, with relatively few total ous jeopardy on this basis, particularly if the end result is the
system failures. loss of a transformer.
There are, however, significant differences between tele-
phone and power distribution systems in terms of battery opera-
tion. Batteries in the telephone system are designed to support Nickel-Cadmium Batteries
their loads for long periods, typically 8 hours. Although normal Despite being available since the turn of the century, Ni-Cd bat-
substation battery duty cycles are also 8 hours in duration, the teries have not been extensively used in U.S. substations. This is
critical switching load is very short and involves much higher partly because they were not promoted to U.S. utilities before
currents. A battery that has degraded to, say, 50% of its rated ca- about 20-25 years ago and partly because of their high initial
pacity will at least provide something close to 4 hours of backup cost relative to vented lead-acid batteries. Indeed, for larger sub-
in telephone service, while a substation battery, if accurately stations with reasonably mild operating temperatures, it is diffi-
sized, may be incapable of providing its switching loads once it cult to justify these batteries. However, for more extreme
falls below 80% of its rating. conditions, Ni-Cd offers some useful benefits.
In addition, telephone batteries are typically deployed in par- Probably the biggest advantage of Ni-Cd batteries is their re-
allel strings. This is at least in part because of the tendency of sistance to high temperature. There is a rule of thumb for
VRLA cells to fail in an open condition. This may be a result of lead-acid batteries that their operating life is reduced by 50% for
dryout, or it may be due to excessive internal corrosion. If a sin- every 8 ºC (15 ºF) increase in temperature above 25 ºC (77 ºF).
gle cell fails open, the entire string is lost. For a low current load For the same temperature increase, Ni-Cd life is reduced by only
supplied by two parallel strings, the loss of one string causes the 20%. Thus, a general-purpose vented lead-acid battery that has a
IEEE Power Engineering Review, November 2000 5
15-year life at 25 ºC would give only 3.8 years at an effective av- more powerful batteries. Many laptop users who are unfamiliar
erage temperature of 41 ºC (106 ºF), while a 20-year Ni-Cd bat- with stationary batteries are quite comfortable discussing the
tery would give 12.8 years at the same temperature. merits of Ni-Cd, Ni-MH, and Li-ion batteries.
Whereas the structural components of lead-acid positive In addition to the huge sums allotted to research in the porta-
plates degrade over time through a corrosion process, the steel ble battery field, government mandates on vehicle emissions are
internal hardware of Ni-Cd batteries is protected by the alkaline fueling similar research in EV batteries, for which hundreds of
electrolyte used in these systems. This allows thin-plate millions of dollars are being spent. Organizations such as EPRI
high-performance designs to be built without sacrificing life ex- and the U.S. Department of Energy are also funding research
pectancy. This is an important factor in smaller distribution sub- into battery energy storage for load leveling and power quality
stations, in which the switchgear often requires relatively high applications.
operating currents and has lower continuous loads, thus favor- From all this work, it is quite reasonable to assume that via-
ing higher-performance batteries. Coupled with the more ex- ble stationary battery systems will be developed. What is less
treme operating temperatures frequently found in smaller obvious is the potential impact that these systems may have on
distribution substations, this can give high rate Ni-Cd batteries a the substation battery market.
distinct advantage in long-term cost effectiveness. For the most part, the most favorable battery developments
fall into three categories with which many users are already fa-
Future Options miliar: Ni-MH, Li-ion, and Li-polymer. Each of these catego-
Most of us have experienced a huge increase in the number of ries covers a broad range of battery systems, but it is possible to
battery-powered systems that affect our personal and business generalize their characteristics and potential for substation ap-
lives. Whether it be cordless appliances, cellular telephones, plications.
power tools, or laptop computers, we have seen rapid develop-
ments in the this field as manufacturers strive for lighter and
Smart Batteries
One characteristic shared by these systems is that they all re-
quire electronic controls to prevent overcharging. While these
controls are required for safe operation and correct functioning
with existing chargers, it is easy to build in additional smart fea-
tures, such as communications interfaces that allow remote
monitoring and control of the system, right down to the level of
individual cells. These systems have already proved effective on
EV batteries consisting of 300+ cells.
The resulting ability of smart batteries to reduce routine sur-
veillance operations is very real, leading to potentially signifi-
cant cost savings.

Nickel-Metal Hydride
Ni-MH batteries are chemically rather similar to Ni-Cd, but
have much higher energy density, a factor that is vital in EVs,
but of much less importance for substations.
Although Ni-MH batteries are maintenance-free with respect
to the electrolyte, this advantage is offset by increased sensitiv-
ity to high temperatures, compared with Ni-Cd. Since high tem-
perature operation is one of the essential factors in considering
batteries other than vented lead-acid, this seems to count against
Ni-MH. Having said this, there are continual developments in
this technology, and it is possible that some future development
will improve this situation.
Unfortunately, Ni-MH batteries are also more costly than
Ni-Cd. While it is possible to justify the use of Ni-Cd in high
temperature applications, this will not be possible with Ni-MH
unless the high-temperature aging characteristics are signifi-
cantly improved.

Lithium Ion
Recent developments in Li-ion technology have led to this bat-
tery type supplanting Ni-MH in many high-end consumer appli-
cations, such as laptop computers. This battery type also shows
considerable promise in EV and energy storage applications.
However, one of the main attractions of Li-ion is its energy den-
sity, which is around 6-8 times as high as typical vented
lead-acid substation batteries. As mentioned previously, how-
ever, energy density is not a major factor in substations, so it
120 V vented lead-acid substation battery on a two-step seismic rack would be difficult to justify Li-ion on this basis alone.
6 IEEE Power Engineering Review, November 2000
High temperature operation is a definite plus for Li-ion. In The other battery types in this comparison are, or are likely to
cycling tests at 60 ºC (140 ºF), there is very little difference in be, more expensive than vented lead-acid. While some of their
the rate of aging compared with tests at 25 ºC (77 ºF). characteristics may be desirable, the question has to be asked:
Li-ion batteries are hermetically sealed, so they are com- Are they worth it? The only accurate way to answer this ques-
pletely maintenance free with respect to the electrolyte. Since tion is to perform a life-cycle cost analysis. Such an exercise
their chemistry dictates that no water be present in the system, considers all the costs associated with battery ownership over a
there can be no electrolysis or gas evolution. This makes them certain period of time, including the replacement of shorter-life
safer to handle and gives them an ampere-hour charge effi- batteries and all associated maintenance and testing activities.
ciency of virtually 100%. Saft has developed software for life-cycle costing that is
To date, most testing of this battery type has been directed to- freely available to battery users. This software allows estab-
wards the cyclic operation of charge and discharge, since this is lished battery types to be compared for a given application, with
the normal usage mode in consumer and EV applications. Bat- a graphical analysis that clearly shows the relative cost benefits
teries in substations, however, are subjected to continuous float of the different technologies. All costs are under the user’s con-
charging, and much work remains to be done to characterize trol, so that an unbiased comparison can be made.
Li-ion for this type of operation. Initial indications point to a
float life of 15 years or more. Conclusions
As many laptop computer users are aware, Li-ion batteries For many substations in which the operating environment is rel-
are very expensive, compared with Ni-MH, which in turn are atively mild, vented lead-acid batteries will continue to be the
more expensive than Ni-Cd. Their cost will come down as pro- battery of choice for the foreseeable future. For those installa-
duction volume increases, but will still be significantly higher tions in which the battery is exposed to higher temperatures, op-
than lead-acid. portunities exist for cost-effective deployment of other battery
types. Of the currently available technologies, nickel-cadmium
offers the best potential.
Lithium Polymer In the author’s opinion, the current trend towards the use of
There are various types of Li-polymer batteries, with markedly VRLA batteries in substations poses a significant risk of cata-
different characteristics. The type discussed here is a dry polymer strophic failure. Utilities using, or considering the use of, this
type that is being developed for telecommunications applications technology should reevaluate their position based on the current
and has been discussed in at least one technical paper [5]. level of industry knowledge of this battery type.
The electrochemical basis for Li-polymer batteries is essen- While newer technologies, particularly lithium ion, offer
tially similar to that of Li-ion, except that the organic electrolyte some interesting characteristics, the higher cost of these new
of the Li-ion types is replaced by a solid polymer that encapsu- batteries will be difficult to justify in this application for at least
lates the electrodes. This construction offers a further improve- the next few years.
ment in safety compared with Li-ion, by reducing flammability. Whenever a new battery type is considered, it is important to
In order to achieve adequate conductivity in the polymer review all the costs involved in owning that battery. The best
electrolyte, these cells must be operated at high temperatures, way to do this is to perform a life cycle cost analysis.
typically 60-80 ºC (140-176 ºF). This means that the ambient
temperature in substation use is not a factor, and the battery will References
give its full life expectancy under all conditions. [1] IEEE Recommended Practice for Sizing Lead-Acid Batteries for
Just what that life expectancy is, remains to be seen. As with Stationary Applications, IEEE Standard 485, 1997
Li-ion, Li-polymer batteries are still under development, and little [2] IEEE Recommended Practice for Maintenance, Testing, and Re-
is known about their life expectancy under float charging condi- placement of Vented Lead-Acid Batteries for Stationary Applica-
tions. There is also some question whether these batteries will be tions, IEEE Standard 450, 1995.
cost effective for the capacities typically used in substations. [3] IEEE Recommended Practice for Maintenance, Testing, and Re-
placement of Valve-Regulated Lead-Acid Batteries for Stationary
Applications, IEEE Standard 1188, 1996.
Availability [4] D.O. Feder, “Performance measurement and reliability of VRLA
Larger capacity Ni-MH batteries are now in production for EVs. batteries,” in Proc. 1995 Int. Telecommunications Conf. (INTELEC
Large Li-ion cells are being produced at a pilot plant level. To ’95), pp. 22-28.
qualify either type for stationary applications such as substa- [5] C. Letourneau, D. Wilmont, and D. Worboys, “Lithium polymer
tions, however, will require additional work. At present, the best batteries: The next generation power source,” in Proc. 1997 Int.
estimate for availability of these battery types in large-scale pro- Telecommunications Conf. (INTELEC ’97), pp. 87-91.
duction for stationary applications is 3-5 years.
About the Author
James A. McDowall is business development manager for the
Importance of Life-Cycle Costing Industrial Battery group of Saft America, Inc. He is a graduate
Utility users are very familiar with the characteristics of vented of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in London, UK. He has
lead-acid batteries, and it is reasonable to compare competing worked in the battery industry since 1977, providing technical
brands based on their initial cost. support services to customers and sales personnel. During this
As users begin to consider other battery types, a comparison time, he has worked extensively with nickel-cadmium, vented
based on initial cost is no longer valid. For example, VRLA bat- lead-acid, and valve-regulated lead-acid batteries. He is very
teries generally have a lower initial cost than their vented coun- active in the battery standards field and has been a working
terparts. However, if all the IEEE recommendations for group chair for a number of IEEE standards projects. He is
maintaining VRLA batteries are followed, and the real life chair of the IEEE PES Stationary Battery Committee and is
(rather than the warranty) is factored in, VRLA can turn out to chair of the IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee 29 on
be a much more expensive proposition. Stationary Batteries.
IEEE Power Engineering Review, November 2000 7