The wind industry has experienced extensive growth since an initial boom in the mid-1990s. Wind power is poised to become a prominent part of the energy supply for global demand. However, as wind turbines get bigger and more expensive, fire risk is becoming a greater concern for the industry.
Fire damage can cause catastrophic damage to a wind turbine and lead to a total loss of an asset. Depending on the size of the turbine, this puts owners and operators out of pocket for $1-5m for most onshore models to $6-8m for newer, offshore turbines.
Most fires are caused by mechanical failures involving high levels of friction and sparks, or electrical failures, from short circuits or cable failures to overloading or generator problems. These fires often start at three primary ignition sources – the converter and capacitor cabinets, the transformer, and the nacelle brake area.
These threats are all relatively well-known, but a number of risk factors have emerged or evolved over recent years that can make a fire more likely, or more devastating.
As such, the industry must account for 5 evolving fire risks:
This year, rising temperatures and longer droughts due to climate change have created the perfect conditions for small sparks to set fires that can spread down the wind turbine and into the wider environment.
Such wildfires can cause huge environmental and reputational damage, as well as exposing operators to costly damages. In our most recent report, “In the line of fire”, we cover a few examples in the wind industry of where turbines have contributed to smaller wildfires. If steps are not taken to prevent fires from spreading from the turbine into the environment, owners and operators could be liable for any disasters that result from a turbine fire.
The first major wave of wind turbines installed in the mid-1990s are coming to the end of their operational lives and, overall, around 7% of the current wind fleet is now over 15 years old. That figure is around 28% in Europe due to the maturity of the sector.
These ageing turbines are at greater risk of catching fire if they have not been properly maintained throughout their operating lifetime. Poor maintenance and older, less reliable technology can increase likelihood of mechanical or electrical failures at the three primary ignition sources in typical turbines.
Fires may interact with new turbine materials in potentially hazardous ways. For example, fiberglass blade dust is more explosive than normal dust, while proposed designs for wooden turbine towers may result in faster spread of fire to the wider environment. Wind’s growth has been driven by innovation and falling costs, but the sector must make sure these materials don’t create additional risks too.
As the industry continues to grow rapidly, there has been a gap between MW installed and number of skilled technicians to maintain these assets. There are now more than 60,000 turbines totaling 109.9GW spinning in the US, but only around 7,000 technicians in the US to manage that fleet.
Additionally, as costs are driven down, this could create a “race to the bottom” of service quality. Lower quality service providers are more likely to miss potential fire risks during on-site work, while poor maintenance of the asset and its surroundings can create the perfect conditions for a fire to start and spread.
As the wind industry moves offshore, turbines are getting bigger and more remote. If a fire breaks out, it is likely that the fire will damage the turbine extensively before a response team can reach the site, requiring either months of costly repairs or the full replacement of the asset. Fires have broken out at offshore renewable energy sources, such as floating solar installations, as recently as September 2020. As such, the industry cannot be lulled into a false sense of security that because a turbine is surrounded by water, a devastating fire cannot start in the nacelle.
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