Wind turbine fires don’t just burn infrastructure; they burn time and money. Incidents can result in several hours of downtime across the entire wind farm and put the affected turbine out of commission for over a year. In addition to missed-out megawatts, the resulting cost can shoot beyond $9 million as turbines increase in size and complexity. The process of repairs is lengthy, expensive, likely dangerous, and ultimately avoidable. Fire suppression systems, which act at the first sign of fire, stifle the flames before they can cause real harm to equipment, reputations, lives, and the bottom line.
Damage: From Arcs to Ashes
Whether a fire begins with a spark in a worn-down transformer, an arc bursting from an overloaded capacitor, or a faulty brake heating up with the immense friction of a sudden stop, no wind turbine is 100% safe from the possibility or the effects.
Each part of the turbine is destroyed in a different way. The fiberglass and plastics of the nacelle meltdown, sometimes to the point of total disintegration, leaving internal components exposed. Gearboxes and generators become warped. The blades themselves can char, fragment, and, if rotation continues, be flung far away or even back into the turbine’s own column.
Aftermath: Recovery, Replacement, and Regret
Along with potential compensation for injuries or damage to the surrounding area, turbine fires bring with them the costs of paying staff for non-value-added work, as clean-up eats into labor hours. Repair operations require equipment such as cranes and trucks or boats if dealing with offshore turbines, and all the associated electrical, fuel, and operational labor costs follow suit.
Fire investigations, which are combined efforts between engineers, attorneys, and specialist investigators to determine the root cause of the fire, can cost $6k-7k a day and last weeks, according to JP Conkwright, who contributed to a recent Firetrace report on fire risk assessment.
Dismantling can cost over $600k and even more for offshore turbines. If the damage is severe enough, replacement parts must be purchased. If the affected turbine model is old, parts that fit the exact specifications of the old turbine may take longer to source, may not be available, or be damaged beyond repair. This can result in a complete overhaul with a newer model, costing millions.
However, reassembly isn’t just limited to matters of engineering. When the consequences of high-profile turbine fires inevitably come under scrutiny, the public image of the wind industry often needs repair. The incidence of turbine fires has historically been a sensitive challenge to navigate, so much that wind turbine fires have been underreported for fears of reputational damage — not just to individual operators and OEMs but to the industry itself.
Relying solely on quick-response firefighting and urgent repairs to deal with these fires is not an effective solution. Because of the remote nature and height of turbines and lack of available water, traditional firefighting is ineffective in battling turbine fires. However, automatic fire suppression systems stop the spread in its tracks before further damage is done, allowing repairs to focus on the components responsible. Flaws and faults in the design, installation, or configuration of these components may be hard to trace after the destruction of a blaze, leaving the culprit unclear.
Oxygen, heat, and fuel are the three factors needed for a fire. Wind turbines are not free of these three dangerous ingredients, and we should not pretend that they are. The best way to preserve operational longevity and mitigate the effects of fire is to invest in and install systems that ensure that when fires break out, they are rapidly suppressed.
When a turbine fire occurs, it can rip through the various components and parts of a turbine rapidly, causing costly damage. Often, this damage is irreparable, especially as turbine fires are hard to extinguish given the often remote locations of wind farms and the fact that nacelles are almost always positioned high above the ground, introducing further complications during the repairs process.
This has enormous implications on wind farm operations, balance sheets, and reputation, but fire suppression systems can significantly limit this damage. As ‘suppression’ implies, these systems are not just passive mechanisms of defense; they are an attack on the dangers, the destruction, and the unforeseen costs of wind turbine fires to the industry at large — and let business continue as usual.