Turbine fire risk management “falls through the cracks” due to lack of clarity around supply chain responsibility. How can this be remedied?
Lack of clarity between wind farm owners and turbine manufacturers around ownership of fire risk management is putting the industry at greater risk of suffering the damaging consequences of fire. This is according to Firetrace, a leading provider of fire suppression technology, following the publication of its latest report, ‘Reducing Fire Risk’.
Although wind turbine fires are relatively rare, when one does occur, it often results in the total destruction of the asset, particularly if no fire plan or suppression technology is in place. This can lead to a financial loss of between US$7-8 million, with damage going beyond the balance sheet. A fire can result in a reputational mark against not only the turbine manufacturer, project owner, and operator, but the entire industry. This can result in opposition to future projects, delaying the rollout of wind power needed to decarbonise the world’s energy supply and reduce emissions in line with international climate targets.
This clear risk has led most turbine manufacturers to move toward safer designs and materials over the past decade. Most new turbine designs no longer incorporate elements that increase the risk of sparks, such as primary mechanical braking systems or failure protocols that result in rapid cycling of hydraulics, or flammable materials that could fuel a fire.
However, Firetrace cautions owners and operators that the risk of fire has not been ‘designed out’ and that this effort on the manufacturer side is only the first step to managing fire risk throughout the supply chain. Operational practices must also follow best practice to prevent catastrophic fires.
Angela Krcmar at Firetrace says: “In any industry, a clear chain of accountability has to be set up to most effectively tackle fire risk, and for conventional power, these steps are mandated by the National Fire Protection Association. However, in wind, many owners and operators understand that turbine manufacturers are taking steps at the design-level to reduce fire risk and assume that no further action needs to be taken on their side. As such, key steps to prevent and put out fires can fall through the cracks due to this misunderstanding.
“It is impossible to completely design out fire risk from an asset that generates electricity – and many assets in operation pre-date these new designs. Owners and operators must have a clear plan in place for detecting, preventing and putting out flames in the rare event of a turbine fire, or find out that although they may have assumed responsibility lies with the manufacturer, they will still be liable for the cost and reputational impact of a fire.”
Best practice for owners and operators to prevent fires from starting includes condition monitoring and preventative rather than reactive maintenance. However, automated fire suppression is the only safe option for putting out any fires that do start, as the spread of a fire through the nacelle can take place in seconds – putting any technicians inside the tower or nacelle at significant risk of injury or death.
Best Practice Implemented
Showcasing what can be achieved when operators implement this best practice is a recent case study from the USA. A renewable energy company that owns and operates 2GW of wind power is in the process of installing Firetrace’s fire suppression systems across its American fleet following a successful pilot programme. After a recent incident, a pilot programme was launched where Firetrace’s system prevented a minor component fire from spreading and completely destroying a turbine at one of its wind farms.
During the incident, a fire sparked inside the nacelle due to a mechanical error in the turbine. The spark could easily have spread and destroyed the unit within 60 seconds. However, several months before, the windfarm owner opted for not only fire detection, which would not have helped in this instance but fire suppression technology that was able to put out a fire after it had started.
As a result of this proactive mitigation strategy, the installed Firetrace system detected and suppressed the fire before it caused irreparable damage to the unit. Without this technology in place, this single fire could have cost up to US$7-8 million and caused months, potentially over a year, of lost revenue.
Because of the height of wind turbines and being located in remote locations, fire is a significant risk for wind turbine owners due to the difficulties of suppressing fires. Krcmar comments that, “90% of the time, a fire leads to a total loss of the wind turbine, or at least a level of downtime that results in the accumulation of substantial economic losses depending on the turbine size and location due to the high cost of replacement, lost revenue, and investigation.
“We are delighted to partner with some of the leading owners and operators to offer 15,000+ wind turbines protection against fire risk and ultimately allow them to take advantage of technological progress to improve operations and safety. Our systems have a tangible impact on their bottom-line, as companies that use our products can expect reduced losses, better safety outcomes, and improved insurability. We are pleased to be installing our technology in 500MW of wind assets across four states for this major American wind farm owner/operator.”
The wind industry has had an exemplary safety record compared to conventional power. But this record could be jeopardised if additional mitigation efforts are not implemented or an operator’s lack of action, due to assumptions regarding supply chain responsibility for risk management, results in a turbine fire.