A lack of clarity around the accountability of fire risk management between wind farm owners and turbine manufacturers has put the wind sector at greater risk of suffering the damaging consequences of fire.
Who is responsible for what? If a turbine catches fire, who is liable? The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or the asset owner? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that turbines are equipped with fire suppression systems?
To proactively tackle fire risk, the industry desperately needs a clear chain of accountability. But to achieve that, first, you need to know the leading causes of fire in wind turbines and the risks they pose.
According to Renewable Energy Loss Adjusters (RELA), most causes of turbine fires are technical and caused by electrical faults situated internally – that means OEM’s hold responsibility for the fire safety of the turbines that they produce.
Fires can start from a short circuit to an overload, cable failure, crimping failure, or generator failure. Human error can also factor into the cause of a wind turbine fire.
For example, fires in converter cabinets and capacitor cabinets in the nacelle are the most common causes of turbine fire. When an electrical fault produces an arc flash or sparks, the electrical cabinets may catch fire. Worryingly, fires originated in the converter or capacitator cabinets can quickly spread to the rest of the nacelle, which is particularly difficult to extinguish, given the nacelle can be over 300 feet above the ground. Firefighters are likely to let the nacelle burn because their equipment cannot reach those heights. They will focus on containing the site as a turbine fire can quickly turn into a wildland fire, which can have significant implications. Therefore, 90% of wind turbine fires in a nacelle destroy the turbine completely.
The nacelle brake, usually found behind the gearbox, is a component that can catch fire too. The brake is used to stop the turbine from spinning in emergency scenarios or for planned maintenance, which generates a lot of friction. Therefore, heat and sparks sometimes resulting in a fire.
Wind turbine transformers, which are in the nacelle or at the base of the turbine, are a fire hazard too. Transformers convert energy into the appropriate voltage for the electricity grid, which can lead to electrical faults and fires. Transformers typically contain low flash point oils however once a fire is ignited with arc flash the fibrerglass nacelle add the fuel to the fire.
As the most frequent causes of turbine fires are technical, it is the responsibility of an OEM to ensure that their product has completed thorough fire risk assessments in the research and development phase before it’s taken to market. OEMs should also design in suppression systems into their turbines. In today’s world, you wouldn’t buy a car that doesn’t come with airbags.
Though most new turbines no longer incorporate elements that increase the risk of sparks, there will always be risks when you’re generating vast amounts of electricity in an incredibly complex piece of machinery. So, fire risk cannot just be ‘designed out’ by the OEM. Even if OEMs incorporate the most advanced passive fire protection measures during production, it is also critical to include fire suppression systems. These systems can actively suppress a fire where the risk of fire has been identified. Additionally, these systems will still need to be monitored and maintained regularly, just like the fire alarm in your house. So, the onus extends to the asset owner and operator to ensure that the turbine and the suppression systems are effectively maintained.
Through health and safety tests, performance monitoring, and weather monitoring, owners need to make sure that no hazards have occurred after the installation of a turbine. Similarly, a car owner shouldn’t buy a car and assume that they can always drive safely – it requires regular check-ups and maintenance with expert mechanics.
Moreover, the risks associated with fires extend beyond damages to an individual turbine or wind farm.
Owners of wind farms have a duty to take the necessary preventative measures to protect their stakeholders. Wind farms tend to have several investors involved in a project, and therefore the owner bears responsibility for the health and performance of their investments.
Turbine fires present considerable risks to the broader industry. Increases in fire within the wind could slow down the speed of an energy transition, while the need to decarbonize only increases. Both the OEM and the owner must take all the necessary steps to reduce the chances of turbine fires as the reputational damage that would be caused can result in opposition to new projects, further delaying the roll-out of wind power.
When it comes to fire hazards, both the OEM and owner have a responsibility to their customers, the immediate environment, and the success of the energy transition to ensure that all precautions are taken to reduce the damages of fire.
OEM’s must ensure that their product is as safe as it possibly can be and work to prevent sparks in mechanical systems like the nacelle. Whereas owners must have a clear plan in place for detecting, preventing, and putting out flames in the event of turbine fire and ensuring that the asset they own and operate is well maintained. Even if they have assumed that the responsibility lies with the manufacturer, they will still be liable for the cost and reputational impact.
OEM’s and asset owners must work together to share responsibility for preventing turbine fires for the sake of not only their company’s financial success but the success of a global energy transition.
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