The Pros, Cons, and How-To’s of Transitioning to Lithium Batteries

Published on Dec 16 2019

Lithium batteries are increasingly gaining attention as a viable alternative to lead acid batteries, and with a host of advantages attractive to telecom, wireless, and CATV corporations, power utilities, data centers, and government agencies, it’s easy to see why. But the transition to lithium is not an immediate or uncomplicated undertaking, and industries and agencies reliant on battery banks to maintain functionality and deliver uninterrupted service will benefit from considering both the pros and cons of lithium as they deal with the combination of old and new technologies that will comprise their installations over years of gradual change and integration.


Benefits of lithium batteries

Lithium batteries boast a range of benefits that make them appealing to organizations leveraging battery installations to power operations and service delivery. Their most significant advantages include the following:

  • A higher energy density gives lithium batteries a longer runtime.
  • The low weight of lithium batteries makes them more portable and easier to ship, install, and manage.
  • Lithium batteries are generally able to function better in a wider range of temperatures than their lead acid counterparts.
  • Greater efficiency

 

Lithium’s potential drawbacks

While lithium batteries have much to recommend them, there are also some drawbacks to consider, including:

  • A higher initial cost—double or more the price of lead acid batteries—can offset the savings from lithium’s longer runtime.
  • Lithium (metal) is unstable in air and water; while lithium-ion does not suffer this instability, when a lithium ion battery is discharged it starts to become more like lithium. This can be dangerous, and as a result special considerations are necessary for proper disposal of Lithium-ion batteries
  • lithium ion batteries require complex internal circuitry to maintain stability and keep the charge perfectly balanced across all cells.
  • For stationary type Li-ion batteries, there are more onerous regulatory requirements (such as NFPA 855) for Li-ion battery supplying 20Kw or more and are subject to strict spacing requirements

 

Integrating lithium batteries into existing installations

Despite the drawbacks of lithium, it is still the most promising advancement available at present. Until next-level innovations like solid state batteries make their way to market, many telecom, utility, data center, CATV, and cellular operators with thousands of sites will be considering lithium as a potential replacement for existing lead acid technologies as they age out.

 

Due to the varying life spans of different types of batteries, this process will be a gradual one in which lead acid, lithium, and any other emerging technologies will co-exist in the same network for years and possibly even decades. Operators making these transitions will increasingly be faced with the need for a

monitoring system that can work with any chemistry, from lead acid in all of its variations to NiCad, nickel metal hydride, lithium, and more.  One monitoring system that handles all chemistries is essential for continuity across the enterprise.

 

Battery monitoring vendors have good solutions in place for all of the variations of lead acid batteries, but due to the instability issues mentioned above, lithium batteries are manufactured with a complex set of electronics built into the batteries themselves which include monitoring.  However to date getting that information out of the battery and into the hands of battery maintenance professionals is still very difficult due to proprietary nature and reluctance of battery manufacturers to share the information. 

 

It’s critical, then, for operators to ensure the lithium batteries they are choosing to replace aging lead acid batteries have a monitoring interface for third party BMS systems. This eliminates the cost and complexity of maintaining two monitoring systems—one for lithium and one for all other technologies—providing instead one central location to monitor network batteries of all chemistries.

 

Ever-evolving technology holds the promise of increased efficiency and capability, but in order to reap the benefits of these advancements it’s key to consider the pros and cons equally, and to make provision for strategic integration with existing technologies.