Wind farms causing fires? All smoke, no flame

Last update: March 24, 2014

A greasy, dark smoke of disinformation is spreading across the internet. Its tendrils seep through open windows on unwary people’s computers. The whiff of it panics rural dwellers fearing for their homes, livelihoods and even lives.

The fear? That wind farms will cause fires.

These tendrils of fear are aided by the extremely rare but very video- and photogenic fires in wind turbines, such as the one caused by a 260 kph gale in a 1.2 MW wind turbine in the Ardrossan Wind Farm in Scotland in December 2011.

With this and a small handful of other pictures of wind turbines on fire, anti-wind lobbyists and campaigners are raising yet another set of unfounded fears in those living in areas where wind farms will be constructed.

So what’s the real story? How concerned should people be about wind farms causing fires?

Short Answer:

Wind farms actually help prevent and contain fires as wind turbines act as lightning rods in endangered areas and the roads and clearings provide both fire breaks and access routes for firefighters. Wind turbines very rarely catch fire, and when they do, almost never cause fires in their surroundings due to simple and mandated clearing of brush from around their base.

Long Answer:

There are multiple points of disinformation that anti-wind campaigners like to pack into this greasy smear:

  1. Wind turbines catch fire all the time
  2. Wind turbines cause fires regularly
  3. Wind farms are an unusual fire risk
  4. Wind turbines prevent fire-fighting, especially water bombing

Let’s blow away the smoke on these one-by-one.

Wind turbines catch fire about as often as someone you know wins the lottery

A minuscule percentage of wind turbines world wide have caught fire. For fire-related statistics, let’s use the anti-wind data source, Caithness.[1] This organization has devoted effort to capturing every accident related wind energy world wide.  As of April 2012, their database contained 185 incidents of fire related to wind farms.  These included telephone poles, electrical panels and other non-turbine fires.  A large portion of the incidents are for small, non-utility scale wind turbines, which tend to have a higher portion of accidents of all sorts as is shown by the Caithness statistics. In the interests of conservative reporting however, we’ll not only leave all of those obviously excludable incidents in, we’ll increase the incidents to 200.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) there are approximately 240,000 wind turbines operating world wide at present[2], never mind the ones that have reached end of life and been decommissioned. This means that a wind turbine has a maximum of a one in 1200 chance of catching fire in its lifetime of 20 years, or about a one in 24,000 chance of catching fire in any given year.

To triangulate, Ketan Joshi, an Australian energy analyst, has used all of the data from operating wind farms in that country to determine that wind turbines there have had a total operational lifetime of 5,000 years and three fires. His assessment of risk:

From these data, if you were to stand underneath a randomly selected wind turbine, you’d have to wait approximately 1,693 years before it burst into flames.

[3]

Asserting any significant changes to wind turbine placement or adoption of wind energy due to these incredibly low likelihoods is a significant over-reaction. It would only occur to people generally against wind energy.

Wind farms pose an insignificant threat of brush fires

There have been three (3) scrub fires attributed to burning wind turbines world-wide over the past several decades from the same Caithness material referenced above.  This means that a wind turbine has perhaps a one in 80,000 chance of making anything around it catch fire once in its 20 year lifespan, or about a one in 1.6 million chance in any given year. People take this seriously, which is why wind turbine operators and fire management officials require that the scrub brush around them be cleared back, but it’s hardly a significant percentage.

This Virginia reference[8] illustrates the real causes of forest fires and is aligned with similar references:

  • Open Burning 30%,
  • Arson 20%,
  • Smokers 14%,
  • Misc. (house, vehicle, aircraft, etc. that spread to the forest) 11%,
  • Children 9%,
  • Equipment Use 7%,
  • Railroads 5%,
  • Lightning 3%,
  • Campfires 1%

Interestingly, while rural dwellers form the majority of anti-wind foot soldiers and hence the primary group of people complaining about fire risk, the risks above are driven dominantly by rural dwellers. They are the ones burning scrub and field debris, they are the ones smoking in rural areas for the most part, they are the ones whose children are running around in rural areas lighting fires and they are the ones whose poorly maintained equipment is catching fire. Yet instead of focussing on prevention that makes sense and that has a reasonable chance of reducing fires, rural anti-wind campaigners worry about wind farms causing fires.

As the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council points out in its 2013 position paper [12]:

Turbines can malfunction and start fires within the unit. Automatic shutdown and isolation procedures are installed within the system. Although such fires may start a grass fire within the wind farm, planning for access and fire breaks can reduce the likelihood of the fire leaving the property. This risk from such fires is less than that of many other activities expected in these rural environments.

Wind farms reduce fire risk

Wind farms actually reduce lightning-caused fires on ridge lines by acting as lightning rods and earthing the charge, preventing the lightning from hitting dry trees.[5]

Wind farms assist with fire prevention in many more cases.  Their roads provide access to often inaccessible areas and their cleared areas provide staging areas for firefighting. In fact, there have been situations where the wind farm roads have stopped brushfires in their tracks, such as this instance from the Hallett Stage 5 windfarm in Australia from summer 2011.

A related argument that anti-wind campaigners make is that wind turbines somehow prevent aerial firefighting in the area. This is contradicted directly by firefighting professionals such as the Aviation Manager for Australia’s Country Fire Service, David Pearce:

“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.

“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.”[4]

Similarly, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council says [12]:

Wind farms are an infrastructure development that must be considered in the preparation of Incident Action Plans for the suppression of bushfires in their vicinity. These considerations are routine and wind farms are not expected to present elevated risks to operations compared to other electrical infrastructure.

Aerial fire fighting operations will treat the turbine towers similar to other tall obstacles. Pilots and Air Operations Managers will assess these risks as part of routine procedures. Wind turbines are not expected to pose increased risks due to wake turbulence or the moving blades.

And if you don’t believe this yet, how about these words straight from this Australian senior fire authority’s mouth?

Regional CFA director Bob Barry, responding to allegations by wind farm opponents, said the authority was well aware of the issue.

“Yes, the infrastructure would restrict aircraft being used around towers, but there are other avenues of fire suppression,” he said.

“It is no different to having to work around power lines and electrical sub-stations.

“Our aircraft are operated by high-skilled pilots who make the judgement call when it comes to flying near wind turbines and power lines.

“Wind farms do have the benefit of defined road networks with greater fire breaks for fuel and fire management.”[7]

Or these words from another firefighter?

The reality is [...] that most firefighters admit that the enhanced access for a Wind Farm will enable much faster crew access to fires on permanently maintained high standard roads through a turbine cluster which will allow faster and easier fire suppression.

It is a fact that climate denial, coal and gas centric anti wind farm lobbyists DO NOT want published that fire suppression will improve in and around a wind farm despite the lack of air support right near the turbines.

It is also a fact that Wind Farm development companies’ have a community fund and at Bungedore a new fire truck was supplied, who would NOT want that benefit in 2013?

It is also a fact that turbines will attract and discharge lightning, therefore, some active strikes will NOT turn into fire as the metal tower discharges the strike into the ground through its inbuilt lightning protection and who would NOT want that? [6]

Sometimes the aid from wind farms is even more direct, such as contributions to the local volunteer fire brigade as part of the many community benefits.

As secretary of the Hawkesdale Brigade Group, I was very privileged to be presented with a cheque for $40,000 from Michael Fraser, CEO of AGL, as a contribution towards the purchase of two ultra-light tankers for the Hawkesdale and Willatook brigades.[10]

Believe people who actually fight fires, not anti-wind lobbyists

So what about the Ardrossan wind turbine fire referenced above? Well, it burned itself out without causing any damage to anything else and the other twelve wind turbines in the wind farm were operational the next day. The same wind storm, however, knocked out transmission lines from the nearby Hunterston Nuclear Plant for 54 hours, cutting about 17 GWh of electricity from the Scottish grid and plunging thousands of Scots into darkness and cold.

What does the Firefighters Association of Ontario say in their guidance?

Although it is rare, there is a potential for wind turbines to catch fire. While some wind turbines may be equipped with suppression systems, others may not. Most fires in wind turbines will be caused by mechanical failure of the equipment within the nacelle or electrical issues and are fuelled by up to 750 litres of hydraulic oil in the nacelle as noted above.

Typically, a turbine fire does not last long enough to warrant aerial attempts to extinguish the fire. As such, it should be allowed to burn itself out while staff and fire personnel maintain a safe area around the turbine and protect against the potential for spot ground fires that might start due to sparks or falling material. Power to the affected turbine should be disconnected by qualified personnel.

If someone is attacking wind turbines with the argument that they cause fires, it is because they are opposed to wind turbines and are hunting for ammunition.  If they were truly concerned about risks of forest fires, they would be dealing with real threats.

References:

[1] http://www.caithnesswindfarms.co.uk/page4.htm
[2] http://www.gwec.net/global-figures/wind-in-numbers/
[3] Wind Farms and Fire Risk
[4] CFS water bombers aware of wind farm dangers
[5] Wind power problems, alleged problems and objections
[6] Do wind farms hinder firefighting?
[7] CFA: Turbines hinder fire aircraft, but not safety
[8] http://globalcrisis.info/forest_fires.html
[
9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/28/wind-power-ayrshire-turbine-caught-fire
[
10] http://www.standard.net.au/story/1448153/a-power-for-good/?cs=77

[11] http://www.ffao.on.ca/public_docs/documents/OFSManualGN-section6.pdf

[12] http://www.afac.com.au/docs/position/wind-farms-bushfires.pdf

4 comments

  1. […] [13] Governmental incentives for renewables are necessary and provide great value-for-money [14] Wind farms causing fires? All smoke and no flame [15] How much backup does a wind farm need? How does that compare to conventional generation? […]

  2. […] some gravel roads and some clearings. These roads and clearings actually have utility, allowing fire fighters among others to access otherwise inaccessible areas and reducing fire starting and spreading as one […]

  3. […] Wind farms causing fires? All smoke, no flame […]

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