James Mountain explains how the power generation industry can keep the fires out and the lights on
The UK’s reliance on renewable energy sources for electricity is increasing, and consistency in our constrained power generation landscape is a growing concern. To meet these increasing demands for more sustainable heat and power sources, we need to build resilience in the systems of renewables being pressed.
Fire is a key risk for power generation sites. It can cause outages that take time to resolve and are damaging to both equipment and fuels. However, power station fires are all too common. When it comes to fire prevention and protection for power stations, the current system needs a new approach.
Traditional guidance on fire prevention within the power generation industry
For over a decade, the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 850 recommended practice for electric generating plants and high voltage direct current converter stations has been the central piece of guidance internationally for fire safety for power generation sites. The guidance sits amongst a complex mix of regulation governing the fire prevention measures across sites where power is generated from combustible feedstocks. Those feedstocks are either derived from organic sources, such as agricultural or wood, or refuse sources, such as household waste.
However, chapter nine of the NFPA 850 devotes only four of its 70 pages to the specific risks of dealing with alternative fuels, an increasingly important concern for the power generation industry. Additionally, practical experience of consulting on the fire safety for sites devoted to alternative fuel combustion reveals a conflicting mix of approaches, most of which are dictated by owners who are led by the insurance industry.
For insurance professionals, the fundamental concern is to protect assets, fuels and equipment. The industry often relies on traditional protection systems, such as sprinklers, even though these are known to not be suitable for certain feedstocks. The industry’s exploration of alternative systems is limited, but different fuels and processes require different suppression, detection and monitoring solutions.
To better address the evolving risks faced by the power generation industry, best practice guidance should take learnings from and reflect real-world situations, and the myriad incidents that have occurred within the sector across the past decade.
What are the fire risks in the power generation industry?
Risks arise from the movement, storage, processing and transportation of alternative fuels. Understanding the properties of these fuels, their consistency, the ingress of hazardous materials, and what happens on contact with water and foams, all represent key challenges and complexities.
From carbon monoxide emissions to large explosions, the wide array of risk is guided by an equally complex range of fire safety legislation. Research into the various aspects of handling these materials and mitigating the associated fire risks is ongoing.
Identifying and monitoring heat within storage of alternative fuels can also be complex, as they act as an insulator, as well as a fuel. This means fire and heat are often hard to detect, until a blaze takes hold. Some types of alternative fuels are also prone to self-combustion if not monitored carefully. The potential for fires to smoulder and burn slowly deep within storage of these materials has been the subject of a large study from Emerging Risks from Smouldering Fires (EMRIS) between 2015 and 2020.
The need for new best practice guidance on fire risk management
As methods for renewable power generation mature, and new technologies and research become available, fire safety regulations need to be updated to keep pace. This is not just a challenge for the UK; it is also prevalent across European and global standards.
This guidance needs to consider a wide array of factors, including contaminated water runoff from sprinkler or spray systems, to ensure the design of an effective prevention, containment and protection system.
As long as the industry remains reliant on outdated and complex guidance, with differing opinions on best practice procedures, the potential for systems to fail continues.
Over a decade on from the introduction of NFPA 850, it is time to revisit its guidance to build a more resilient and fire safe future for the UK’s 48 waste to energy and 78 biomass power generation sites. The guidance needs to provide greater clarity around the specific risks relating to waste and biomass derived fuels. That requires a comprehensive approach, which looks at all aspects of designing, installing and maintaining systems. Specific issues relating to solar and wind power, and the growing need for on-site battery storage to hold power for electric and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, should also be given greater attention.
This robust approach to ensuring power station fire regulations are fit for purpose involves multiple stakeholders. The regulators, government, academics, technology partners and fire safety professionals all have key contributions to make. Working together is vital to build long-term confidence in the safety of renewables to fuel our industries, transport and homes in the future.
James Mountain is with Fire Shield Systems