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Wind Turbine fires

Wind turbines occasionally catch fire. At the time of writing there were about 570 wind turbines in Australia, serious wind power construction started here around 2003. There have been three turbine fires.

In July 2014 much publicity was given to a report titled 'Overview of Problems and Solutions in Fire Protection Engineering of Wind Turbines' which made the (unjustified) claim that turbine fires might be up to ten times as common as had been reported.

The content of this page was previously in a more general page, but the above report had so much coverage by the anti-wind power lobby that the creation of this page was justified.

Written 2014/07/21, modified 2017/06/24
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com (David Clarke) – ©
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Introduction

 
Starfish Hill Wind Farm
Turbine fire
The fire of 2010/10/30
Image credit Fleurieu Multimedia
 

Radio interview with fire fighting authority

The ABC's Annette Marner interviewed SA's Country Fire Service's David Pearce about fires and wind turbines on 2013/03/04. (One error I noticed; I believe that there have not been any turbine fires in Australia other than the three mentioned in SA.)
There have been three fires in wind turbines in Australia that I know of: Lake Bonney, Jan. 2006; Cathedral Rocks, Feb. 2009 and Starfish Hill, Oct. 2010; all of them were in the state of South Australia (which happens to have more wind power than any other state). The first fire was due to an electrical fault during maintenance work. I do not know the cause of the Starfish Hill fire; the other happened during 'normal' operation. While I believe there were spot fires around the Cathedral Rocks turbine, none of these caused a bush-fire, but the possibility is there of a future turbine fire causing a wild fire.

 

Update, late June 2017

It is now nearly seven years since the last wind turbine fire in Australia. There are about 2100 utility scale wind turbines in Australia, asuming an average of 5 years operation for each, that's about one fire per 3500-turbine-years.
 

How frequent are wind turbine fires?

Renewable Energy Magazine published an article on 2015/11/17 in which it was reported that globally one in six thousand wind turbines burn in any given year. (A total of 50 turbine fires per year in 300,000 wind turbines.)
It needs to be said that it is quite likely that the frequency of bush-fires will be reduced by the presence of wind turbines. Wind turbines on the tops of ridges will safely conduct many lightning strikes to earth, while, before the turbines were built, the lightning strikes may well have started fires. Lightning strikes are a very common cause of wild fires in Australia.

To place the three fires in perspective, at the time of writing this page there had been around a thousand turbine-years of wind turbine operation in Australia.

The area around the base of all turbines is kept clear of vegetation (in the case of the proposed Mount Bryan Wind Farm at least, the SA Country Fire Service required a cleared area of 40m × 40m), but a fire in the nacelle, on top of the tower, could result in sparks and burning material falling on the ground at a distance from the tower.

Geoff Conway of the Country Fire Authority has said that fires from agricultural machinery at harvest are a far greater fire risk than are wind turbines.

 
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The turbine access roads would help emergency services access any fire. Some turbines have built-in fire suppression facilities such as automatic flooding with carbon dioxide. This is not used on Suzlon turbines in Australia because of the risk of asphyxiation of workers; protecting life is held more important than protecting assets.

 
The paragraph on the left is based on advice that I have received on wind turbines and fire fighting from Andrew Allchurch, Gilbert Group Officer of the South Australian Country Fire Service.
Wind power opponents have claimed that Country Fire Service units are not allowed to go within certain fixed distances of turbine fires. This is not true; the decision of how to respond is entirely up to the person in charge at the time.

Much is made by wind turbine opponents of the 300 L of oil in the turbine gearbox being a fire hazard. This would be true if the fire was due to failure of the gearbox, but I had the piece below from Brendan Ryan of Suzlon:

"I worked for Vestas when one of their turbines burned at Lake Bonney. I remember clearly the inspection crew had checked the inside of the gearbox and found no signs of heat damage even though the whole external nacelle was destroyed."
Brendan also told me that all their turbines have carbon dioxide extinguishers in the nacelle and at the bottom of the turbine.





A dubious claim on the frequency of wind turbine fires:
The "Overview of Problems and Solutions in Fire Protection Engineering of Wind Turbines" report

 
Updated 2014/07/24
An article headlined "Wind turbine fires 'ten times more common than thought', experts warn", written by Emily Gosden was published in a UK newspaper named The Telegraph on 2014/07/17. The article was based on a report claimed to have been "published in the journal Fire Safety Science". In fact it was published by an organisation named the International Association for Fire Safety Science.

 

Response from author

One of the authors, Ricky Carvel, responded to an email I sent him, in part, with the following:
"As far as I am concerned, the message and intent of the paper can actually be summarised as follows:

There is a small but significant problem with fire in wind turbines. This is something we can actually do something about by applying fire safety engineering principles to the design of such turbines. However, change will only come about if the insurance industry pushes for it."
The report was written by Solomon Uadiale, Evi Urban, Ricky Carvel (all School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, UK), David Lange (SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden) and Guillermo Rein (Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London). In what follows this report will be referred to as Uadiale et al.

Very little of what I've written here is opinion; almost everything can be confirmed by referring to the Uadiale et al report, to the sources it references and in only one case, an article on the Internet by Business Spectator.

Uadiale et al referred back to The Telegraph and to Caithness Windfarm Information Forum (CWIF; an anti-wind power organisation Net site) as authoritative sources. This is questionable in a science paper.
 
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Unjustified conclusion

On the fourth page of the report the authors go from the observation that:
The newspaper The Telegraph reported that there were about 1500 wind turbine accidents in the UK between 2006 and 2010 while only about a tenth as many were recorded by the anti-wind power organisation CWIF.
to the conclusion that:
"Thus we can argue that the publicly available tip of the iceberg represents about 10% of the total number of [wind turbine] fires"
 

Incidents, not accidents

On 2014/07/21 Business Spectator reported the director of Renewable UK as having said that the 1500 figure was for 'incidents' not 'accidents. Incidents include minor slips, trips or falls as well as actual accidents.

This totally destroys even the tenuous logic used by Uadiale et al to claim reported fire frequency as being too low.

Uadiale et al claimed that the number of accidents was independently confirmed by Renewable UK, but this is highly questionable (see the box on the right).

This completely unjustified conclusion has been gleefully taken up and repeated world-wide by unscrupulous anti-wind power organisations.

Of course, unlike work-place accidents on wind farm sites, wind turbine fires are highly conspicuous and almost invariably will be reported by the local media.

Dishonest

In the case of a turbine fire at Lake Bonney Wind Farm, Australia, there were also dishonest specific claims in Uadiale et al.
  1. The report stated that 'some 80,000 ha of national park were destroyed by a wildfire ignited by the turbine debris' and gave an Australian Broadcasting Commission report as a reference. In fact, the ABC Net site referred to mentions a blaze that "consumed more than 70 hectares" and did not mention wind turbines at all. In fact it was referring to another fire that happened four years after the turbine fire.
  2. Uadiale et al stated that "Investigation into the cause of the fire found that the cause was an electrical failure within the turbine nacelle" while the referenced source stated "We don't know the cause of it at this stage because we can't get at it, but it's probably an electrical fault in the turbine".
  3. Uadiale et al claimed that "The incident led to the shutdown of the farm, leaving some 63,000 homes without electricity". In support of this claim Uadiale et al referred to an anti-wind power Net site called Wind Action. The Wind Action page referred to actually stated that it was a 'heatwave [that] left 63,000 South Australian homes without power'.
 

Request for retraction

Given the very significant shortcomings in the report and the fact that the unjustified conclusion – that turbine fires could be up to ten times as common as has been reported – has been repeated world-wide by the anti-wind power lobby, I have requested that the International Association for Fire Safety Science retract this report, at least until it is corrected and rewritten.
Points 1 and 3 above seems later to have been used in the Discussion and Conclusions where it was stated that:
"These fires result in financial loss, power loss (which is especially problematic in remote locations where the wind turbines are a major source for electricity), as well as secondary damage, for example through road closures or ignition of wild fires in rural areas."
In fact no evidence is given that a major power loss did result from a turbine fire or that there was an ignition of a wild fire.

Nonsensical

The basic claim, that turbine fires are under-reported makes no sense. What could be more conspicuous than a fire in a wind turbine? Any person nearby would likely get a photo and forward it to a local newspaper. All the country newspapers that I know of would jump at the chance to report on a local wind turbine fire, especially when there was a photo involved.

So far as I know there have been three turbine fires (that destroyed the turbines involved) here in Australia. All were well publicised. It is conceivable that there might have been a fourth that I have not heard about; it is utterly beyond belief that there could have been 27!

I believe that Sarah Laurie, a well known and very vocal anti-wind power activist based in South Australia, has called electrical cable joint fires, 1200mm below ground level, 'wind farm fires', so there may well be some over-reporting of wind turbine fires.

Number of fires per turbine decreasing

It is to the credit of the authors that they included this section. Quoting from page 2 of the report:
"Because the absolute number of fire accidents tends to increase with the number of installed turbines, the expected growth in the installation of wind turbines, also bring the expectation of an increase in the number of turbine fires. However, the [ratio] of fire accidents per turbine installed has decreased significantly since 2002."

Author plays down the report

In an article in Wind Power Monthly, 2014/07/17, Guillermo Rein, an engineer in fire safety from Imperial College London and one of the authors of the report was quoted as saying:
"In terms of fire hazard, the figures are almost negligible. It is a one in 10,000 probability of a fire. There is no scandal here. This number is not zero, but it is minimal. By comparison with other energy industries, fire accidents are much less frequent in wind turbines than other sectors, such as oil and gas, which globally has thousands of fire accidents per year."
So why was he involved in producing the misleading report?

More information should be available

While the Uadiale et al report is seriously flawed, it is true that the wind power industry could be much more pro-active in making wind power statistics freely available to the public.
 
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Edited 2017/01/20

Aerial fire-fighting and wind turbines

 
Water bombing aircraft at Waterloo Wind Farm, 2017/01/17
Water bomber at Waterloo
This and the following photos were taken by Waterloo Wind Farm technicians
 
Water bombing aircraft at Waterloo Wind Farm, 2017/01/17
Water bomber at Waterloo
 
Water bombing aircraft at Waterloo Wind Farm, 2017/01/17
Water bomber at Waterloo
 
Water bombing aircraft at Waterloo Wind Farm, 2017/01/17
Water bomber at Waterloo
Contrary to allegations made by the anti-wind power lobby, wind farms present no special obstacle to aerial fire-fighting.


The Waterloo fire of 2017/01/17

The following section, about the fire, was written 2017/01/20. It is as I understand the situation at the time of writing; but I expect to learn more in the coming days and weeks.

The photos on the right were taken during a fire which started some kilometres to the west of Waterloo Wind Farm and burned up to the ridge where the turbines were. The turbines were paused by the wind farm operators and the water bombing aircraft flew wherever they were needed, sometimes between the turbines.

The fire was stopped at the turbine access road along the top of the ridge. However, a secondary fire was started by a wind-blown ember on the eastern side of the ridge; this burned back up to the top of the ridge.

I believe that this is the first wildfire in Australia that was at a wind farm and in which water bombing aircraft were used.


SA in particular

ABC News published the following on 2012/12/11...
The Country Fire Service (CFS) says wind farms do not pose any special hazards when it comes to fighting fires from the air.

Some wind farm opponents say the turbines create unique hazards in the event of a fire.

CFS aviation manager David Pearce says the pilots of water bombers view wind farms like they would power-lines or radio masts.

"Aircraft are only used on a relative minority of fires throughout the fire season, it's just really another piece of infrastructure in the environment that we just need to be managing on a risk basis when we're fighting fires," he said.

"Any obstacle in the airspace where we're running aircraft is a problem for aircraft obviously.

"We would treat the wind farms exactly the same way as we treat powerlines that are reasonably high, also radio masts, television towers or even high structures."

Victoria in particular

ABC online news 2015/02/25 ran an article headlined: "Wind farm buffer zone changes won't impede firefighting says Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner"

Quoting the ABC article:

Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner has rejected claims that reducing wind farm buffer zones could affect firefighting capabilities.

During the election, Labor promised to reduce the exclusion zone around new wind farm projects from two kilometres to one.

Wind Industry Reform Victoria represents people living near wind farms and said the Government's plan would make firefighting "impossible" near houses close to turbines.

However, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said that was not the case.

"We make sure that our pilots and our air attack supervisors that fly to supervise our fire-bombers are aware of wind farms and they build that into their plan and we haven't had any example where it's restricted our fire operations," he said.

"I think the key thing is how and which we use aircraft operation in and around the turbines."

"We have operated around turbines, we'll continue to do so and the buffer zones we don't believe will impact negatively on any fire operations."
 
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Fire hazard without wind farms

It should be recognised that climate change, if unabated by changing from fossil fuels to renewable energy, will result in far greater increases in fire hazard. Scientific American, June 2011, carried an article stating that fire danger in the western US states will increase up to six fold with just one degree higher average temperatures.

Googling something like "fire hazard climate change" will provide many references showing that wild fires have become more intense and the fire season has become longer due to climate change, and that this is only going to get worse in the future unless the world changes to renewable energy. Just one such is by the Climate Council of Australia.

Lightning strike

A common cause of fires in Australia is lightning strike, which is covered at greater depth in another page. The risk of wild fires started by lightning strike will be significantly reduced in an area where the ridge-tops are lined with wind turbines that safely conduct the lightning to the earth.

Turbine access roads are useful to fire-fighters

 
Grass fire stopped at wind farm access road
Grass fire
Photo credit; REpower service technicians, The Bluff Wind Farm
The photo on the right was taken on 2011/12/29 following a grass fire that burned up to, but not beyond, an access road on The Bluff Wind Farm – one of the Hallett group. The grass fire was started by lightning.

A turbine access road was again useful in fighting the Waterloo fire of 2017/01/17.

 
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Bird causes flash-over fire

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a fire on 17 January 2017 at Currandooley, near Tarago in the Canberra area. It seems that the power line involved carries power between Woodlawn and Capital wind farms, both owned by Infigen.

The SMH article, by Georgina Connery, stated

"The fire started as a result of a bird flying close to high-voltage powerlines, igniting and landing in dry grass."
The fire burned "almost 3400ha".

It seems that this was something of a freak event. Birds being electrocuted by going too close to a couple of high voltage power lines is apparently quite common, but to then set fire to grass is very unusual. Of course it could happen on any high voltage power line. It seems that 2017/01/17 was a very hot day.

Louise Thrower in the Goulburn Post reported Infigen's response to the event:

"It was an unusual event. We have had over 20 unplanned outages over four years prior to the recent event and we suspect bird strikes on powerlines were responsible for all of those. (But) it has caused only one fire over four years".
 
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Links

Several links are scattered through the text of this page.

Wind Farms and Fire Risk (in Australia in particular), 2013/01/25, by Ketan Joshi. Mr Joshi notes that, as of the date of writing his page, there had been three wind turbine fires in Australia in five thousand turbine-years of operation.

Renewable Energy Magazine published an article on 2015/11/17 in which it was reported that globally one in six thousand wind turbines burn in any given year. (A total of 50 turbine fires per year in 300,000 wind turbines.)






Index

Access roads and fire-fighting
Aerial fire-fighting and turbines
Bird causes flash-over fire
Dubious claim on fire frequency
Fire hazard without wind farms
Introduction
Lightning strike
Links
Request for retraction
The Waterloo fire of 2017/01/17


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