A new report has found that the number of incidents of wind turbines catching fire are a sizeable issue for the wind industry, and a problem that is not being accurately reported on, with an estimated ten times more fires occurring than are actually being reported.
The new report from researchers at the Imperial College of London, the University of Edinburgh, and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden is the result of a global assessment of the world’s wind farms, estimated at around a total of 200,000 wind turbines. The results showed that instead of the publically reported 11.7 fires a year, the reality is that more than 117 separate fires are breaking out in wind turbines per year.
“Wind turbines are viable sources of renewable energy that can assist the world to reduce emissions and help wean us off fossil fuels,” said Dr Guillermo Rein, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London.“However, 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. Our research outlines a number of strategies that can be adopted by the industry to make these turbines safer and more fire resistant in the future.”
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Wind farm fires are still reporting as less than other energy industries, with other sectors such as oil and gas more likely to see fires as part of the energy generation process. However, a single fire can have devastating economic costs on such expensive equipment.
The authors of the report point out that “the three elements of the fire triangle” are all in evidence in wind turbines — “fuel (oil and polymers), oxygen (wind) and ignition (electric, mechanical and lighting) are represent and confined to the small and closed compartment of the turbine nacelle.” Additionally, “once ignition occurs in a turbine, the chances of externally fighting the fire are very slim due to the height of the nacelle and the often remote location of the wind farm.”
Fires are found to be the second-leading cause of catastrophic accidents in wind turbines, following blade failure, and are responsible from anywhere between 10% to 30% of reported turbine accidents since the 1980s.
The industry itself has not responded well to the report, with the UK’s leading renewable energy trade association, RenewableUK, hitting back at the reliability of the report itself.
“The wind industry welcomes any research that will help improve safety standards,” said Renewable UK’s Director of Health and Safety, Chris Streatfeild. “However, the industry would challenge a number of the assumptions made in the report, including the questionable reliability of the data sources and a failure to understand the safety and integrity standards for fire safety that are standard practice in any large wind turbine.”
The “questionable reliability of the data sources” refers to the author’s decision to rely on non-scientific industry sources. RenewableUK note that the researchers “have therefore chosen to draw their conclusions from data reported in newspapers and on anti-wind websites” because, as the authors write, “there is … very little scientific information available publically from which to evaluate the problem critically, since much of this information is proprietary.”
RenewableUK’s Chris Streatfeild continues:
“There is also a lack of context in the research relating to the actual level of fire risks present to workers and members of the public. Wind turbines are designed to international standards to meet mandatory health and safety standards including fire safety risks. State of the art monitoring systems ensure that the vast majority of turbine fires can be dealt with quickly and effectively. This is supported by an HSE-commissioned report in 2013, which concluded that the safety risks associated with wind turbines are well below all other comparable societal risks.”
RenewableUK certainly make a point, as the report (PDF) seems to rely upon “what is known and apparent” (p11) rather than striving to reach scientifically reliable and rigorous answers. The reality is that newspapers provide an unreliable data source, often reporting on the same incident from three different angles to create the appearance of three separate incidents. Nevertheless, the basic assumption of the paper — that clear and accurate industry-specific reporting of wind turbine fires is being diminished — needs to be addressed, and this paper will no doubt begin to challenge any attempts to bias such incidents.
The authors have provided several measures the industry can take to minimise and protect against wind turbine fires, but the most likely outcome from this report will be increased vigilance — both within and without the industry — of such fires and accurate reporting.