Industry-wide underreporting of fires at wind farms has led to poor risk mitigation and damage prevention strategies, a report from a fire suppression firm has found.
Firetrace International's report, called In the Line of Fire, looks at the threat of wind farm fires amid changes in turbine technology and the climate. It draws insights from wind industry fire experts about how manufacturers, operators and investors can respond to an evolving threat of fire.
The fire specialist says that because of a lack of reporting and transparency around wind farm blazes, it is difficult to know how far off current estimates (ranging from 1 in 2,000 turbines to 1 in 15,000 ) are from the true number of fires each year, while many figures are more than five years out of date.
It identifies risks from global warming, ageing turbines, new materials, offshore giants and skills shortages.
Chris Streatfeild, director at health and safety consultant Forge Risk, said that companies are “fundamentally going in the right direction in terms of health and safety”, and that the industry has a good track record on managing fire risk.
However, he added: “I think we need to take data ownership. The industry certainly has opportunities to be better about sharing and communicating data about incidents, because we need to share, and we need to learn from it.
"I fully understand the industry’s caution, but I think we should be more open, more upfront and more willing to own the issue.”
- Negative reputation: A lack of transparency over fires in the industry means opponents can set the agenda on wind’s safety record, Firetrace argued.
- Operator uncertainty: A lack of robust figures means wind farm owners and operators find it difficult to decide what level of fire protection they need.
- Old data: A reliance on turbine fire data from the mid-2010s means companies can’t spot recent fire trends to tackle them
Firetrace argues that there insurers and manufacturers' reports of how often wind turbines catach fire "vary wildly".
In 2020, Wind Power Engineering magazine estimated that one in 2,000 turbines would catch fire, while one in 10,000 was the figure offered by Fire Protection Engineering magazine in 2019.
And Firetrace cites an independent fire expert who says that the risk of a catastrophic fire, where a turbine is destroyed, is one in 15,000.
Firetrace added that if one in 2,000 turbines catches fire each year, it suggests that a typical wind farm with 150 turbines would be hit by one or two fires in 20 years of operation.
It also stated that the risk of wind turbine fires will change alongside the climate and technological trends.
In 2020 there have been devastating wildfires in Australia and the US, exacerbated by climate change, rising temperatures and droughts, creating the perfect conditions for fire.
These conditions expose turbine operators to additional risk, Firetrace stated.
The research cites examples where turbines have been struck by fire.
A turbine fire at the 120.6MW Buffalo Gap Buffalo Gap (120.6MW) OnshoreTexas, USA, North America Click to see full details wind farm in Texas in August 2019 sparked the 1km2 Rhodes Ranch 3 Fire in Mulberry Canyon.
In July 2020, another turbine fire in Texas that caused a 13km2 wildfire in Nolan County.
And in July 2019, a turbine fire at the 151.2MW Juniper Canyon Phase 1 Juniper Canyon Phase 1 (151.2MW) OnshoreKlickitat, Washington, USA, North America Click to see full details wind farm in Washington state ignited the surrounding grass and brush after melted sections fell to the ground. The blaze sparked a 1km2 wildfire.
The research points to such fires exposing operators to legal claims from neighbouring landowners even if there was no negligence by the operator, potentially provoking legal battles between insurers, manufacturers and operators.
As the first major wave of turbines installed in the mid-1990s come to the end of their operational lives, around 7% of the total current wind fleet is now more than 15 years old, the research states, alongside 28% in Europe due to the maturity of the sector.
Firetrace raises concerns over older models that may be less reliable – because of less sophisticated technology – that can exacerbate problems in the three primary ignition sources in typical turbines.
These are the converter and capacitor cabinets in the nacelle, the transformer and the nacelle brake area.
Firetrace adds: “The hydraulic area is sometimes considered a fourth ignition source. Of these three primary ignition sources, most fires start in the converter cabinet or capacitor cabinet in the nacelle. Most fires are caused by electrical failures, from short circuits or cable failures to overloading or generator problems.”
The research suggests risks with older machines may be well-known, but that this may not be the case with materials in new turbines, such as fibreglass used in blades.
Firetrace cites JP Conkwright, turbine fire investigator and assistant professor of fire protection and safety engineering technology at Eastern Kentucky University, who said that making turbine blades out of fibreglass may expose workers to "explosive dust" during repairs.
He said: “We’re doing a lot of blade repairs. We’re doing a lot of internal blade repairs, and the fibreglass dust is much more explosive than normal dust. We’re inside a confined space, 300 feet in the air, creating fibreglass dust with a grinder.”
Meanwhile in Europe wooden turbine towers are a good environmental solution, but concerns were raised over safety, especially in confined spaces, hundreds of metres in the air, where there may be fibreglass dust.
Size matters offshore, the report stated, with manufacturers now offering 13MW and 14MW turbines.
As big as skyscrapers and many miles from dry land, they pose a different set of risks from those in onshore wind, though Firetrace added that so far industry is managing them well.
Friretrace cites G+, the global health and safety organisation for offshore wind, saying there has been no fire incidents at offshore wind farms in 2018, 2019 or in the most recent set of statistics from the first quarter of 2020.
The company did warn that operators and investors should remain very aware that the costs of a catastrophic fire at an offshore wind turbine would be huge.
The potential impacts of skills shortages among skilled operations and maintenance (O&M) technicians mean potential fire risks, the research states.
In the US, wind farms totalling 9.1GW were commissioned in 2019, which was the third-highest year on record – with 4.4GW in the first six months of 2020.
Now there are more than 60,000 turbines totalling 109.9GW in the US, with just 7,000 technicians to manage that fleet.
The stark contrast in figures has led O&M specialists to warn of a shortage of skilled technicians.
Operators need contractors to deliver projects cheaper by driving down costs, raising concerns over service quality.
Owners need to remain vigilant so that this doesn’t “store up extra fire risks” in the coming years, the report concluded.