Fires in both on and offshore wind turbines can have a devastating impact on developers, investors, and all advocates for clean energy. Whether it’s the reputational damage caused by a visible and photographable incident or the immediate environmental risks like the potential spread of wildfires, it’s clear that the sector must take fire risk seriously.
But the sheer financial cost of fire can pose the greatest threat to a company, and that’s where the level of risk can differ. When a turbine catches fire, it’s most likely that it can’t be fixed. So, the owner not only has to ensure the fire is put out and clean up all the damage caused but also has to pay to replace the entire turbine too.
For example, wind turbines cost roughly $1 million per MW, reaching heights of 90 meters onshore, with an average rotor diameter of 125 meters. Offshore wind turbines, however, are usually much larger, as they are designed to produce more electricity. For example, at the UK’s largest wind farm, 14MW machines are being implemented.
More recently, Orsted set out plans to produce a 27MW turbine, reaching 385 meters in height and a rotor diameter of 320 meters. The cost of manufacturing, construction, and the operations and maintenance are far higher for these gigantic machines, increasing the financial risk.
The Fire Risks Onshore
When a turbine catches fire onshore, a team of specialist firefighters must be rapidly deployed to attempt to suppress the fire and act fast to contain any environmental impacts. Often, this process of traditional fire fighting would require a crane to reach the top of the turbine, as most fires occur in the nacelle.
The fire poses a risk to its surrounding environment, and in the worst case, could trigger a wildfire. The fire could spread into nearby communities, via flammable infrastructure and arable land, if the situation isn’t dealt with rapidly.
There is, of course, the risk to the reputation of the wind industry. There is likely an increased risk that a fire onshore will attract an audience. If they take any videos or photos and share them on social media, it is the reputation of the industry that can come under threat.
The Fire Risks Offshore
Although less visible to the public, offshore fires are even more challenging to extinguish, as many sites are situated far from shore, taking repair vessels at least 45 minutes to get there. Nowadays, wind farms can be built up to 150 miles away from the coast. This makes it unlikely for an emergency response team to prevent irreparable damage, as the fire will burn for a prolonged period of time.
Offshore, while the environmental risks are very real to the seabed’s natural environment. The fire is unlikely to continue to spread, as the water would extinguish the flames.
The overriding theme here is that whether fire starts in an onshore turbine or an offshore turbine. The risks are very great – and varied. Whether the impacts are felt financially, reputationally, or to the off-takers who are reliant on offshore or onshore turbines for their power needs.
It’s clear that both onshore and offshore wind turbines need advanced fire suppression systems. To alleviate unscheduled maintenance and repairs caused by fire, understanding the probabilities of component failures and having condition monitoring systems (CMS) in place can indicate problems in the turbine before they become catastrophic. Though the financial cost of turbine fires is greatly increased offshore, the reputational cost of fire onshore is equally damaging to the trust of stakeholders, investors, and the general public.