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Within three days of its start on Saturday, June 15, 2019, Chicago’s first e-scooter rental program logged more than 11,000 rides, according to city officials.

With concerns that e-scooters, e-bikes and lithium-ion batteries are causing fires, a Chicago City Council committee is pushing for better safety standards.

Mariah Woelfel/WBEZ

Lithium battery fire worries push City Council committee to OK safety standards

The ordinance would allow fines for failing to meet safety certifications or for selling lithium-ion batteries that have been reassembled with cells from used batteries.

With mounting concerns across the country that electric bicycles, e-scooters, and lithium-ion batteries can cause deadly fires, a Chicago City Council committee Wednesday advanced regulations that would require they meet safety standards.

Ald. Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward and chair of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection, pointed to lithium-ion batteries being one of the leading causes of fire in New York City. In 2023 there were 270 fires, 150 people injured and 18 killed from fires caused by the batteries, according to the New York City Fire Department.

Chicago hasn’t seen a rash of fires on the same scale. But recently in February, investigators found a Park Ridge house fire that caused $150,000 in damage was the result of a lithium-ion battery in an e-bike exploding while it was being charged. In 2021, a fire at an abandoned paper mill in Morris that contained approximately “184,000 lbs of lithium batteries” led to several thousand people being evacuated.

Silverstein said she would like for Chicago to follow in New York’s footsteps, where Amazon has stopped selling uncertified lithium-ion batteries after the city sent a cease-and-desist letter following newly-passed regulations.

“We’re starting here in Chicago, but we’d love to get this statewide,” Silverstein said. “These e-bikes are very, very dangerous.”

Lithium-ion batteries can be found in electric bikes and scooters, cars, laptops, phones and more, and the proliferation of batteries in products has “led to battery chemistries that pack higher energy in smaller packages” that need enhanced safety regulations, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Fires that erupt from the batteries are “not like a regular flame”, said Patrick Cleary, president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union.

“It propels itself and it continues. And then even after they’re put out they can start to regenerate heat again and start up again, especially with cars” said Cleary. “We put the cars out, we take them to the junkyard, they start up on fire again. So these batteries are very dangerous.”

The ordinance received support from e-bike manufacturer Radio Flyer and Old Town-based e-bike retailer Electric Movement (in full disclosure, the CEO of Radio Flyer is the chair of the Chicago Public Media board).

The ordinance would allow for fines between $100 and $2,000 for distributing devices, like e-bikes, that don’t meet safety certifications or for selling lithium-ion batteries that have been reassembled with cells removed from used batteries. The ordinance does not prohibit batteries from being recycled, and according to a news release from Silverstein’s office it would “not impact the vast majority of e-bike brands or bikeshare providers such as Divvy.”

The fires are more like explosions, said Robert Slone, a senior vice president and chief scientist for UL Solutions, a Northbrook-headquartered safety science company and testing laboratory, who stressed regulations are needed to try to prevent the fires from happening in the first place.

“Micro mobility equipment, like e-bikes and e-scooters, are a convenient, climate-friendly transportation option,” Slone said. “However, a failure to meet product safety standards has sparked a safety crisis.”

Legislation before Congress would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a safety standard for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. But regulations at a local level will give officials enforcement teeth now, Slone said.

“When we see fraudulent products, whether it’s an online portal, or a retail shop or whatever, we have a way to then address that and surface that and take care of it,” Slone said.

The ordinance would also direct the Chicago Fire Department to collect data and provide annual reports to the City Council on fires that occurred by devices like e-bikes. The ordinance now heads to the full City Council for approval.

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

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