Wind turbine fires are bad news for many reasons. From developers to operators and owners, manufacturers to workers, fire incidents at wind assets can hugely negatively affect everyone. Whether by causing injuries to onsite workers, detriment to future wind projects, or intangible wounds to the reputations of all involved entities – turbine fires deeply mar the industry.
However, the impact of a turbine fire can spread well beyond those directly involved in the ownership or operation of the asset or even those in the industry. When fires burn outside wind farm boundaries, it can have devastating consequences on the nearby environment and communities.
Here we outline three potential consequences of a turbine fire spreading to surrounding areas, highlighting the importance of fire suppression systems to prevent these hugely damaging scenarios.
North America’s fire season is well and truly upon us. Last month, the US contended with the largest number of wildfires it faced in any June in the previous ten years. Worryingly, the most active months for fires are still to come.
It’s no surprise that the public is being advised to take every precaution, while many states have set up rolling blackouts to prevent electrical sparks in power lines from triggering a wildfire.
Furthermore, on a global level, we are starting to see “intense wildfires flaring up from California to Russia’s Far East.” The entire northern hemisphere is grappling with record-breaking heatwaves. As fires are either caused or fuelled by extreme heat, this means even small fire risks pose a significant threat of developing into uncontrollable wildfires that damage large areas.
Wind turbines aren’t exempt from exacerbating the risks wildfires pose or immune to the destruction they cause. As the general public and grid operators are urged to do their part in practicing best safety measures, it’s fitting that the wind industry also takes proactive steps to prevent and suppress fires. Without fire suppression mechanisms in place, fires that spark at onshore wind farms can cause catastrophic damage to the turbine in minutes. After the total destruction of the nacelle and tower, the surrounding locale is at risk – particularly if temperatures are high and the site is close to woodlands, dry grass, or forestry.
This is not just a hypothetical concern. In July 2020, a wildfire – started by a blaze within a turbine at an onshore wind farm – spread across 300 acres and burned for more than four days. With the 2021 fire season that is generally set to be more problematic, wind assets must be properly protected to ensure they are not the source of such incidents.
While onshore wind fires aren’t commonplace, there have been at least seven reported US onshore fires so far this year. If fire incidents in turbines continue at this rate or increase as temperatures rise, this could result in devasting damage.
Pollution and Damage to Habitats & Wildlife
Renewable energy prevents damage to the planet by reducing emissions. However, in order to prevent direct harm from an accidental fire, fire prevention and protection must be a priority.
In the event of a turbine fire, especially one that spreads beyond the site, there is the potential for immense damage from the resulting pollution. Air pollution is a lingering effect of brush and wildfires long after the flames have been doused.
Where a fire spreads into the environment, it could damage flora and fauna around the site. Wildfires already decimate plant and animal species. Billions of animals are estimated to have died because of wildfires in 2020.
And while offshore wind farms are further from land, people, and property, a fire on an offshore turbine could still damage the wider environment. A burning offshore wind turbine’s melting parts can crash into the sea, polluting the surrounding waters and affecting aquatic life. Also, in an instance where non-environmentally friendly firefighting foams are released to fight the fire, that can leak into the sea from the turbine platform.
Damage to Private Property
Turbine fires spreading into communities pose too large a threat to ignore. This month two years ago, in July 2019, a wildfire caused by a melted turbine crashed down into brush and placed nearby residents on level three evacuations from their homes, requiring firefighters to be stationed at the locations overnight.
While the wind industry is set to play an integral part in the energy transition, it must take steps to ensure it is not hindered by the reputational damage that fire can cause.
Wind energy has experienced steady year-on-year growth and is viewed favorably by the general public. A recent survey by Pew Research Center revealed that 79% of Americans say the country’s energy supply priorities should lie in developing alternative energy, like wind and solar. It is important that this positive perspective on clean energy endures and expands through the remaining 21%.
However, with each turbine fire that threatens the lives, safety, or livelihoods of residents, trust in the sector’s ability to guarantee public welfare is chipped away. These risks make it that much more difficult for operators to gain approvals to repower the affected site or develop future projects.
The landowner of the area where the previously mentioned July 2020 incident took place was quoted to say: “The financial reward of wind turbines is not worth the safety of your family and property… I'm still grateful for what they do and produce and the income and economy that they provide for our area, but at the same time, they have to be safe.”
Wind energy is and will play a major part in preserving the planet. However, in order to ensure reputation-destroying fires do not occur, owners and operators must invest in technology and best practices for fire prevention and protection.