The answer here is relatively straightforward: not long at all. But there are various types of damage to consider in the aftermath of a wind turbine fire. It includes physical damage – the tangible, visible burnt-out shell of a multi-million dollar wind turbine. And the conceptual, reputational damage that is invisible but has the potential to become so deep-seated that it is increasingly difficult to fix.
Let’s look at these types of damage in turn.
A Turbine Beyond Repair
It doesn’t take long for a large box containing polymers, cables, insulation, and hundreds of liters of hydraulic oil and lubricants to become fully engulfed in flames. It’s a matter of minutes before a faulty electrical component or overheated gearbox ignites a fire that leads to total destruction. Fire will and does rip through the interior of a nacelle rapidly.
And given many turbines are in remote locations to harness the best wind, and the nacelles of most turbines stand more than 80m above the ground, similar to the height reached by the beacon of the Statue of Liberty. This means a wind turbine fire is unlikely to be extinguished quickly or at all by ground crews, and fires can burn well beyond the parameters of irreparable damage. In short, fire will take hold quickly, but unless the turbine has fire suppression, it’s unlikely the turbine fire will be extinguished. Instead, the fire will burn itself out, causing catastrophic damage.
If the turbine is 2-3 MW in power, that’s just over $3 million burnt to a cinder in a matter of moments. In itself, that’s hefty. But with turbines getting bigger, the loss is likely to run into tens of millions of dollars, and that’s just what the asset has cost to manufacture and install. What about the losses incurred from power the asset can’t generate? Or from a necessitated shutdown of neighboring turbines and possibly an entire wind farm?
Visible, irreparable damage isn’t just caused to the turbine in the event of a fire. Those flames can and will burn through the finances of a project.
It’s a bleak scenario, but when a turbine becomes consumed by flames, it’s not just the asset or the wider project’s finances that suffers damage. It’s the reputation of the project, too.
While it’s abundantly clear that wind is essential to the energy transition mix and it has huge potential to play a critical role in replacing power produced by fossil fuels, wind farms are still met with opposition in communities around the world.
Conceding ground to opponents of wind projects, who may – potentially without any real substance – claim turbines are unsafe because of the visible damage they do when they catch fire is far from ideal.
But in an age of social media, when community news or gossip spreads like wildfire, the reputational damage to wind projects from fires has the potential to be costly. Particularly when it comes to securing new permits, expanding projects, or when developers seek to develop on other sites. Opponents in those localities are calling out the “track record of fire at other sites”.
That invisible sentiment could build among communities and cause irreparable damage to the future of wind projects. It’s what makes the installation of fire suppression systems that can, in the event of a fire, prevent damage to turbines and to the reputation of the wind industry at large, both sensible and advisable.