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Study points to fire-related wind turbine failures

Incidents of wind turbines catching fire are a problem that is not currently being fully reported, claim researchers from Imperial College London, Edinburgh University and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden.

Together, they carried out a global assessment of the world’s wind farms, which contain an estimated 200,000 turbines. The team found that ten times more fires are happening than are being reported. Instead of an average of 11.7 fires each year, which is reported publicly, the researchers estimate that more than 117 separate fires are breaking out in turbines annually.

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 related accidents per year.

However, fire accidents can have a considerable economic impact on the wind farm industry, the team said in a statement.

In their paper published in Fire Safety Science, they say that a typical 1.5MW onshore wind turbine would have a total initial cost of approximately €1.1m while a 3MW offshore turbine would cost around €4.9m.

Furthermore, a wind turbine that costs in excess of £2m and can generate an estimated income of more than £500,000 per year, so losses or downtime make the industry less viable and productive.

The researchers make a number of recommendations to reduce fire incidents in wind farms.

Dr Guillermo Rein, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, said: ‘Wind turbines are viable sources of renewable energy that can assist the world to reduce emissions and help wean us off fossil fuels.

‘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.’

Wind turbines catch fire because materials including hydraulic oil and plastics are in close proximity to machinery and electrical wires, which can ignite a fire if they overheat or are faulty. Lots of oxygen, in the form of high winds, can quickly fan a fire inside a turbine and, once ignited, the chances of fighting the blaze are remote due to the height of the wind turbine and the isolated locations they’re often situated in.

Since the 1980s, when wind farms were first constructed, the team found that fire has accounted for 10 to 30 per cent of reported turbine accidents. In 90 per cent of the cases, the fire either leads to substantial downtime or a total loss of the wind turbine.

The researchers also outline the main causes of fire ignition in wind turbines in the study, namely lightning strike, electrical malfunction, mechanical failure, and errors with maintenance.

Reports of fires in wind farms are increasing, the researchers said. However, the true extent of these fires has been hard to assess because official reports about fires are either incomplete, biased or contain non-publically available data.

In an effort to get a clearer picture about the true extent of fires in wind farms, the team carried out an extensive analysis of data from sources including government reports, data from anti-wind farm lobbyists and information gathered by major newspaper investigations.

The researchers suggest a number of measures that can be put in place to prevent fires from happening. These include passive fire protection measures such as installing comprehensive lightning protection systems.

Other measures include using non-combustible hydraulic and lubricant oils and building heat barriers to protect combustible materials. Manufacturers are also advised to avoid using combustible insulating materials and apply new monitoring systems to constantly check the condition of machinery so that maintenance work can be carried out in a timely way.

The researchers also suggested a number of active fire protection measures that can be used to stop a fire before it takes hold or gets out of control. These include smoke alarm systems inside the turbine, so that fire safety authorities can be alerted rapidly. The team also suggest suppression systems that quickly douse the flames in water or foam.

In the future, the team aim to study the impact of fire in other renewable energy technologies such as solar panels.


Readers' comments (7)

  • If wind turbines were starved of their subsidy, would these environmental (as opposed to ecological) disaster areas even be contemplated at all? The British tax payer is being bled dry by powerful influences making vast profits for share holders of turbine related companies with the heaviest subsidies ever paid out. If the same investment went in to British manufacturing companies we would be out of recession and up with the Germans. As far as the green lobby is concerned, I weep for the children who will grow up never being able to experience the natural beauty of our countryside which has been permanently blighted by these massive white concrete weeds which are nothing more than political tools and make absolutely no economic or environmental sense at all.
    They operate in a relatively short weather window - In light winds they draw energy from the national grid, and in high winds they have to be virtually shut down or they will catch fire. Future generations will look back at the utter stupidity of these monstrosities.

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  • If nothing is done to move from fossil fuels, the children wont have anything to look at !!!

    So weep for the glaciers and the slowly reducing rain forests

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  • Now, here is an interesting question. Is a financially loss making renewable energy installation actually an energy sink?

    If a renewable energy installation outputs more energy during its lifespan than the energy used to manufacture and install it, then from a physics point of view it is an energy source. If the financial cost of manufacturing and installing the same renewable energy installation is greater than the revenue obtained by selling the energy it produces during its lifespan, then it is undeniably a money sink. Don Lancaster thinks that it is also an energy sink in reality.

    In his article he makes three statements:

    1. Here's one definition that can end up both handy and remarkably useful... DOLLAR - A voucher currently exchangeable for the personal use and control of ten kilowatt hours of electrical energy or thirty kilowatt hours of gasoline.

    2. It is thus both a valid and a useful concept to think of "using dollars" as "spending gasoline".

    3. If your solar panel is generating two cents worth of electricity a day and the interest cost is three cents a day, you have a net energy sink. The longer you run it, the more gasoline it wastes.

    Is Don Lancaster really telling the truth or is he coming out with confused statements? Does money used to subsidise financially loss making renewable energy installations have to come from somewhere where fossil fuels are being used to create it in the first place?

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  • Completely agree with Paul Lear.

    Wind is nonsense. They're nothing better than a flashy marketing sop to uninformed armchair activists and subsidies to German engineering manufacturers (as though they need more) and wealthy land owners.

    It is quite apparent that we've invested in the wrong green technology.

    The rapid pace of solar development, the energy densities and predictability of wave and tidal and the reliability of nuclear should have been our focus but this is what one gets when the decision makers don't really understand the differences between power and energy and the differences in scale between MW and GW, i.e. PR driven problem solving.

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  • My views on 'Wind' being an inefficient means of making rich people even richer, with no other benefit, should be well known by now.

    On the pure engineering question of why these things catch fire, well, if you put all the working parts 300 feet up a pole and then expect regular and proper maintenance to be carried out in all weather and conditions, I think you are probably dreaming.

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  • Among the issues left untouched:
    Most large turbines use over 200kgs of rare earth elements (REE), the Chinese mining and refining of which release massive volumes of radioactive thorium and acids into the Pacific Ocean, via the Yellow River. Further, by creating a high demand of REEs, the limited REE supply reduces their use for other advanced electronics that might otherwise save power.

    In the US, wind turbines are killing tens of thousands of raptors and other birds per year.

    As for their power output, most published stories describe their theoretical output, not the 30% average, and some of that is sent to 'ground' because it isn't needed. We pay for it all, one way or the other.

    The argument that wind turbines are good for the environment are false.

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  • On the positive side for wind turbine development. The new type of turbines are DIRECT DRIVE. This means that there is no more gearbox, 50% less parts, nearly no more lubricants, much less weight in the air >> less constraint on the poles. Cost of the turbine/kw is also coming down drastically.

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