Wind turbine fires ‘ten times more common than thought’, experts warn

July 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Turbines are prone to catching on fire because their design puts highly
flammable materials such as hydraulic oil and plastic in close proximity to
machinery and electrical wires, which can ignite a fire if they overheat or
are faulty.

“Lots of oxygen, in the form of high winds, can quickly fan a fire inside a
turbine,” it says. “Once ignited, the chances of fighting the blaze are slim
due to the height of the wind turbine and the remote locations they are
often in.”

It warns: “Under high wind conditions, burning debris from the turbine may
fall on nearby vegetation and start forest fires or cause serious damage to
property.”

The main causes of fires are lightning strikes, electrical malfunction,
mechanical failure, and errors with maintenance, it finds.

The academics used data compiled by the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum
(CWIF), an anti-wind lobby group, which records 1,328 accidents involving
wind farms globally between 1995 and 2012. Of these, 200 – 15 per cent –
involved turbines catching on fire, implying 11.7 fires per year.

But the report, published in the journal Fire Safety Science, also back
CWIF’s view that the true number is far higher.

It points out that the wind industry body, Renewable UK, has admitted there
were 1,500 wind farm accidents and incidents in the UK alone between 2006
and 2010 – while just 142 individual accidents in the UK were documented in
CWIF’s database over the same period.

This implies that less than 10pc of incidents are publicly reported.

Dr Guillermo Rein, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial,
said: “Fires are a problem for the industry, impacting on energy production,
economic output and emitting toxic fumes. This could cast a shadow over the
industry’s green credentials. Worryingly our report shows that fire may be a
bigger problem than what is currently reported.”

He told the Telegraph he believed it was “the responsibility of the
industry” to keep a proper database and believed the industry itself had
been “surprised by the magnitude of the problem”.

UK cases highlighted in the report include a 100-metre tall turbine that
caught fire during hurricane-force winds at Ardrossan in North Ayrshire in
December 2011, reportedly due to a lightning strike. The wind turbine was
completely burnt out and debris scattered over large distances due to the
strong wind.

In 2005, a turbine at the Nissan factory in Sunderland was engulfed in fire
before falling onto a nearby A-road, causing traffic disruption. The blaze
was believed to be caused by a loose bolt jamming a mechanism, causing it to
overheat.

Dr John Constable, director of Renewable Energy Foundation, which has
published research showing that wind turbine performance declines sharply
with age, said: “This new study on wind turbine fire hazards is an important
reminder that there are hidden operation and maintenance costs affecting the
economic lifetime of what is after all very expensive equipment. Just
because the wind is free doesn’t mean that it is a cheap way of generating
electricity.”

A spokesman for Renewable UK said it did “not have numbers of fires as in many
cases these do not need to be formally reported”.

Renewable UK’s director of health and safety, Chris Streatfeild, said: “The
wind industry welcomes any research that will help reduce maintenance times
and improve safety standards. However, the industry would probably challenge
a number of the assumptions that are presented in the research, which
include the questionable reliability of the data sources referenced and
perhaps more importantly a failure to understand the safety and integrity
standards for fire safety that are in effect standard practice in any large
wind turbine.”

He said: “Fire is a very important issue for the industry in terms worker and
public safety as well in reducing costs through minimising any operational
down time. However the operational practices and design standards are such
that the actual safety risks associated fire are extremely low. No member of
the public has ever been injured by a wind turbine in the UK.”

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