Fire risk transparency can help wind’s growth

The US election is upon us and polling strongly suggests that the Democrats will be taking a full sweep in all the branches. But what would this mean for renewable energy?


October 29, 2020

The US election is upon us and polling strongly suggests that the Democrats will be taking a full sweep in all the branches.

But what would this mean for renewable energy?

More investment, that’s what. Democrat candidate Joe Biden has already committed to policies that would support the construction of tens of thousands of turbines in the US and, if Democrats control the Senate, then he should get exactly what he wants.

This would carry on the growth in US wind that President Trump has presided over, despite a personal animosity to wind of which he reminded us in last week’s debate with Biden. Frankly, at this stage, we aren’t ruling out another Trump victory either – and wind investors have been bullish about future growth no matter who wins.

All of this growth is great, right? It is if done correctly, but too much growth can also cause problems if the industry isn’t also transparent on matters of safety.

Low-frequency disasters

Let’s take our lessons from the oil and gas sector, which experienced a tremendous boom in the early ‘80s but was riddled with regulation after one fateful night in 1989, known as one of the worst environmental disasters of our lifetime: Exxon Valdez.

The incident caused so much destruction that insurance companies re-wrote their policies overnight and regulation was crafted in a matter of months, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that prohibited tankers from entering Alaskan waters.

An industry on a massive growth spike was slapped down with fines and litigation because of one incident. In the famous words of then US Transportation Secretary Skinner, the oil and gas industry scored a “0 on a 1-10 for preparedness.”

With any emerging industry it takes time to implement plans and readiness. We can learn from the old and reinvent the new. It is possible to take these lessons from oil and gas and apply them to the wind industry – and, specifically, fire risks in wind.

Last week, A Word About Wind sat in on a webinar on fire incidents in wind turbines. The panellists included representatives from DNV GL, Firetrace and the University of Eastern Kentucky. The webinar followed the publication of a report on five emerging turbine fire risks, called ‘In The Line Of Fire’, which Firetrace released this month.

The panel discussion focused on issues with the legacy fleet and the catastrophic damage that a turbine fire incident could cause for an operator and the industry.

Key takeaways from the webinar were that there are not many laws on the books regarding fire prevention for wind turbines, and also very little to almost no data on how many fires occur globally.

This echoes a call in the report for the wind industry to be more open when it comes to sharing data about turbine fires. Wind farm operators have a strong track record on fire, but are often nervous about being transparent with their data as opponents can use it as a stick to beat the industry with.

But the report argues that lack of transparency is more damaging as it suggests that there’s something to hide; and can stifle discussions about further improvements.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry.

In the webinar JP Conkwright, professor of fire protection and safety engineering at Eastern Kentucky University, laid out preventive measures that wind turbine owners and operators could take as first steps to avert potential disasters.

First, identifying and mitigating fire hazard sources, and putting in place preventative measures to stop them at source. This is vital because, as Conkwright put it: “Once you have a fire there is not a lot you can do than just watch it burn.”

And second, having a robust response and recovery plan that includes participating in drills with local authorities. This is essential if firms are to protect their employees; their ‘social license to operate’; and wind’s reputation as a force for good.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that low-frequency high-cost events happen. And while the growth prospects for wind in the US and elsewhere are strong, it can take just one disaster to de-rail an industry. Operators could make great strides by opening up.

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