Turbine fires: what the industry knows

With the report of the tragic deaths of two young men who were working to maintain a large-scale wind turbine in The Netherlands, questions have been raised about the reports of turbine fires, and whether safety issues have been adequately addressed. Among the questions raised was, how do we know how many fires there actually are?
    We recall an article in an industry magazine in 2011, which suggests there are enough fires for the industry itself to be very concerned. In the North American Clean Energy article titled Taming turbine fires before they start: it’s when, not if…, author Scott Starr, a director with Firetrace International, states that “Property damage to the turbine and nearby areas from fires reported in the past decade ranged between $750,000 and $6 million.” That’s quite the range.
   The range of damages is significant, he reports: “Aside from the imminent hazards of a burning turbine, there is also the risk if sparks, embers, or debris falling to the ground and setting off a wildfire…” Ontario has had experience with that, when a fire in a turbine near Goderich last spring caused debris to be spread over hundreds of meters, as well as noxious smoke and fumes.
   Starr outlines the cause of turbine fires: “The most common cause of a turbine fire is a lightning strike—a risk that is heightened by the installation of taller and taller wind turbines. Turbines are now being built that are up to 320 feet high. They’re frequently sited in exposed and high-altitude locations.”  In fact, in Ontario, many turbine projects have equipment that will exceed 400 feet in height, and some (not yet built) over 500 feet.
   The problem is so significant in the U.S., Starr writes, that the National Fire Protection Association added standards for wind turbines to its 2010 NFPA 850 “Recommended Practice for Fire Protection for Electric Generating Plants.” The revisions include recommendations for the safety of construction and operating personnel.
   Wind turbines are usually constructed in locations with restricted access, “placing them beyond the prospect of immediate action by fire service. Even when emergency services are able to respond quickly, few have the equipment capable of firefighting at the height of modern turbines.”
   The solution, Scott says, is adequate fire suppression systems that do not require an external power supply, and which can stop a fire before it “can do irreparable damage to the turbine or spread elsewhere.”
    “Wind farm fires do happen,” Scott concludes, “and many in the industry suspect they occur far more frequently than statistics suggest…. Many insurers are becoming increasingly concerned and the opinion of many can be summed up by the following statement: ‘Fire. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.’ ”
Wind Concerns Ontario has a copy of a fire protection bylaw pertaining to turbines, which can be sent to you by contacting us at windconcerns@gmail.com