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Wind turbine fires can be catastrophic, so why don’t they all have fire suppression systems?

Our dependence on renewables is growing, and as a result, the wind turbines being built are taller, and more powerful. Yet with this growth, comes the challenge of keeping assets operational. Coltraco describes how operators can ensure their wind turbines remain fully operational. 

The second leading cause of accidents in wind turbines after blade failure, is fire. It is hence even more vital that we keep them fully operational, and reduce the risks of lives lost and assets damaged, in order to lead in this global movement for greener change.

There are over 340,000 wind turbines around the world, yet the vast majority have no fire suppression system installed. 10-30% of all loss-of-power-generation incidents in wind power plants are due to fire. The nacelle operates at a great heat and comprises highly flammable resin fibreglass, with internal insulation. Combined with the possibility of lightning strikes, these very tall turbines (now surpassing 450ft) in exposed locations pose a uniquely high risk and are vulnerable to fires.

Fire lends great danger

When turbines are under construction, or engineers are undergoing maintenance and repairs, the escape routes are often long and vertical, which in the case of a fire lends severe danger. An example of the other effects of such an event:

  • In 2005, a wind turbine powering the Nissan car factory in the UK caught fire, leading to the total loss and disruption of the nearby highway

  • In 2011 a wind turbine fire in Ardrossan, UK caught fire and burning debris were scattered across a long distance due to the strong winds

  • In 2012 a wind turbine fire in Lower Saxony Germany estimated a potential loss of €300,000-400,000

  • In 2017, a wind turbine caught fire and sparked a wild fire Northeast Wyoming, and burnt nearly 1,600 acres.

We must work collaboratively in the wind industry, to find ways of ensuring we can drive greener energy, whilst minimising the danger to engineers, and surrounding landscape, by enhancing our fire safety.

There are many ways to ensure these fires do not recur. The nacelle should be protected via small gaseous fire suppression systems and rely on them to avoid total loss, to save lives, and protect critical infrastructure before maintenance engineers can get to them.

Test quickly and accurately

Quick and accurate routine tests can make the greatest preventative difference, according to Coltraco, a British designer and manufacturer of ultrasonic safety and monitoring instrumentation. Through technology, such as the one it has developed with a specialist non-invasive liquid level measurement to test the contents of fire suppression systems which are inside the nacelle of the turbine, operators can be reassured that their wind turbine is safe from fire. 

Coltraco noted one instance where its technology helped: 

“In 2017 a wind turbine manufacturer went to the manufacturer of the fire systems that they install in some turbines for a solution to inspect the fire system cylinders [for agent content loss in case the pressurised cylinders leaked or discharged which would mean insufficient agent to suppress a fire event]. This manufacturer had worked with Coltraco on projects for many years and recommended the wind turbine manufacturer to look to Coltraco for a solution. Working with the wind turbine manufacturer HQ, Coltraco Ultrasonics’ flagship product Portalevel MAX (ultrasonic liquid level indicator for testing fire suppression systems for agent contents) was chosen for trials and testing. The Portalevel MAX unit is able to identify liquefied gaseous extinguishant levels to +/-1.5mm. These passed and the unit was deemed to solve their issues: giving the ability to regularly inspect and maintain the contents of their fire extinguishing systems.

Using technology such as the Portalevel MAX customers can protect their valuable assets from substantial fire damage, as well as minimise downtime for maintenance, ensuring cylinders are always full and able to extinguish fires. If we really want to make a global effort in leaning ever more to renewables for our clean energy, we must make this recommendation a mandate and a requirement.  

These fires that continue to occur, pose a dangerous threat to both business continuity and human lives, and yet they are entirely preventable. More and more wind turbine manufacturers are acknowledging the risk to assets, and fire suppression systems are being retrofitted in existing sites. We must now continue to educate and lead, ensuring that no more lives are lost nor critical assets damaged. There are smart solutions available that enable wind turbine owners and operators to improve their fire safety management and reduce the threats to human life, and business continuity caused by any downtime, hereby diminishing the risk to business reputation.

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