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A fire destroyed a multimillion-dollar wind turbine at the Kibby Mountain wind farm in northern Franklin County, which has generated concern about the safety and reliability of turbines, and the process by which these fires are reported to government officials and the public.
Companies that operate wind farms in Maine are not currently required to report turbine fires to any state agency.
TransCanada, the Calgary-based energy company that built the 44-turbine Kibby Mountain wind farm in 2010, confirmed for the Bangor Daily News that a fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 16 destroyed one of its wind turbines — primarily the nacelle, which is the rectangular structure behind the blades that holds the gearbox and electrical components. With the capacity to generate 132 megawatts of electricity, Kibby Mountain is the largest wind farm in New England. (TransCanada is also the company behind the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline proposal.)
The fire’s aftermath troubles Bob Weingarten, president of the Friends of the Boundary Mountains, an organization that has fought against the Kibby Mountain project since the beginning. He calls the company’s handling of the event a “cover-up” and believes there should be an official notification system to inform all stakeholders, including the public, when such an incident occurs.
“The permitting agencies haven’t done anything to establish a system of responsibility,” he said. “If there was a tragedy, everyone would say, ‘Why didn’t everybody know about this?’ To me, that’s irresponsible.”
The turbine fire did not affect other nearby turbines or spread to the surrounding forest, according to Grady Semmens, a TransCanada spokesman.
“The Kibby turbines have built-in fire detection systems,” Semmens wrote in an email to the BDN. “In the event of a fire, a smoke alarm detects this and automatically shuts off the turbine. That is what happened in this case. Our power system operators identified a problem at the facility and when TransCanada’s employees arrived at the site the following morning, the fire was out.”
Whether the company will replace the turbine depends on the results of the insurance claim and other economic considerations, according to Semmens.
This is the first reported case of a turbine fire at a Maine wind farm, according to Samantha Warren, a Maine Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman.
The threat of turbine fires to the surrounding forest has received cursory attention during past public hearings on Maine wind farms, but never much serious scrutiny, Warren told the BDN.
That could change.
Are turbines more dangerous than logging equipment?
The DEP has looked into the issue “quickly as a formality,” Warren said. “Given this latest incident, we’ll look into it more seriously in the future.”
But advocates for Maine’s wind farm industry argue turbine fires are extremely rare, and that the Kibby Mountain fire should not cause a knee-jerk reaction from state regulators.
“Applications for wind projects in Maine are already highly scrutinized,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “Every wind development in Maine has to develop a preparedness plan, which includes public safety setbacks. … In addition, the clearing done to build the turbines and the pads that they are built upon limit the ability of fire to spread.”
Maine law already requires a licensed civil engineer’s recommendations be considered when determining setbacks and gives the siting authority, whether the DEP or the Land Use Planning Commission, the chance to ask for additional information as part of any application process, Payne said.
Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative, points out that wind turbines are not the only pieces of machinery operating in Maine’s woods.
“Where is the concern for fires in logging operations? Where is the concern for fires in machinery operated at ski areas? These are all common uses that require machinery in a forested area,” Williamson said. “This is really not dramatically different than those other uses.”
The cause of the Kibby Mountain fire is not yet known, Semmens said. Vestas, the turbine manufacturer, is leading an investigation, which also involves an independent third party, to determine the cause. Semmens said the third party is an “approved fire investigator,” but wouldn’t disclose a name. The investigation is anticipated to be complete by June, he said.
Andrew Longeteig, a Vestas spokesman, would not comment on the potential causes of the fire.
“Until the root-cause analysis is complete, we cannot speculate on the cause of the incident,” Longeteig wrote in an email to the BDN.
When asked whether the investigation’s findings will be made public, Longeteig wrote: “We can’t determine who will receive the results of the investigation until the root cause is found.”
Turbine fires rare, but expensive
The turbines installed at Kibby Mountain are the Vestas V90-3.0 MW model. Immediately after the Kibby Mountain fire, the company reviewed 1,000 turbines of the same model that are deployed in the United States and Canada, according to Longeteig. All were found to be operating normally.
Vestas has nearly 50,000 installed turbines worldwide, including nearly 14,000 in North America, “and fires are a rare occurrence,” Longeteig said.
Turbine fires are rare, agreed Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center. “But when they do happen, it’s a big deal,” he said.
TransCanada wouldn’t reveal the cost of the damage, but Veers estimates that a single turbine costs in the vicinity of $4 million.
“These are capital-intensive investments,” Veers said. “You pay for everything upfront except for minor maintenance costs and expect to get revenue to pay for that over 20 years, so the loss of a turbine is a big deal for the industry.”
There are no incident reporting requirements for wind farm operators, so no reliable data exist on just how rare these fires are or what causes them, Veers said. He believes the most likely causes of turbine fires are lightning strikes and electrical shorts, but no matter the cause, figuring out a way to help prevent them should be given more attention, he said.
“The objective of these machines is to make them operate flawlessly for their lifetime, and a failure in a system or a couple of systems that allows a fire to begin is a huge deal,” Veers said. “It hasn’t risen as an important element across the industry because they’re so rare, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important.”
On April 2, just two weeks after Longeteig’s comments to the BDN, another Vestas turbine, though of a different model from those installed at Kibby Mountain, caught fire at a wind farm in Ontario. In October 2012, another Vestas turbine — again, a different make than the ones at Kibby — caught fire at a wind farm in Nebraska. While the cause of the Ontario fire is still unknown, an investigation discovered the source of the Nebraska fire, but Longeteig wouldn’t disclose its findings.
The turbine company did disclose the cause of a fire that destroyed a turbine in Germany in March 2012. The company in a news release said the fire started as “a result of a loose connection in the electrical system that created an arc flash.”
Turbine repairs were underway on Kibby Mountain
In a financial report released last May, Vestas admitted that it had identified 376 gearboxes within V90-3.0 MW turbines that were “delivered to Vestas from June 2009 to September 2011” that “may potentially need additional maintenance, repair or replacement due to malfunctioning bearings.” The V90-3.0 MW is the same model of turbine that was installed at Kibby Mountain in 2010.
Following the disclosure, Vestas identified 10 turbines at Kibby Mountain that needed new gearboxes. Longeteig said five were replaced last year, with five more scheduled for replacement this summer. When asked whether the turbine that caught fire was identified as having a gearbox with faulty bearings, he replied in an email: “I don’t know.”
At the end of 2011, slightly fewer than 200,000 wind turbines were operating around the world, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. The only guess on the number of turbine fires comes from a Scottish wind-industry watchdog organization, which tracks incidents at wind farms through media reports. It has at least 50 turbine fires during the last two decades in its database.
In December 2011, high winds caused a turbine fire in Scotland. The incident was caught on video and the images have been used by anti-wind activists as evidence of the threat wind farms pose.
Clyde MacDonald of Hampden is one such activist who has testified at public hearings on Maine wind farms several times — and wrote opinion pieces for the BDN — about the threat turbine fires pose to Maine’s wilderness. He maintains regulators weren’t aware of turbine fires when he first raised the issue. He hopes this incident will bring the issue to the forefront.
“I’m not castigating them for not knowing, but once I showed them the evidence, I got hot under the collar because they didn’t take it seriously,” MacDonald said.
While TransCanada is not required to report a fire to state officials, companies are required to report any potential spills of oil or other hazardous materials to the DEP. Because a wind turbine contains some oil and other potentially hazardous materials, TransCanada did file an oil and hazardous material spill report with the DEP on Jan. 23, seven days after the fire. The DEP determined the fire did not cause enough of a hazardous material spill that required a response, Warren said.
“There were follow-up communications with the department and the [Land Use Planning Commission] in early February as we got more details on the event, not because it is mandatory that they be reported to us, but because we think it is important to track these incidents so we can develop regulations in the future that mitigate their environmental impact,” Warren wrote in a follow-up email.
Other state agencies reported being told of the fire, but possessed no authority over the event or its aftermath.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal wouldn’t get involved in a wind turbine fire unless criminal activity were suspected, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for Maine’s Department of Public Safety, which includes the fire marshal’s office.
Bill Hamilton, chief forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service, the state agency tasked with fighting forest fires, didn’t hear about the fire until several days after the fact. And he learned about it not from TransCanada, but because he was copied on a complaint about the fire that was emailed to the fire marshal’s office.
But Hamilton wasn’t worried that the company didn’t immediately notify the Maine Forest Service about the fire because, he said, there was never any danger that it would spread to the nearby forest.
“In mid-January, I don’t think — or, I know — it’s not possible for a fire to spread to nearby forests when there’s 3 feet of snow up there,” he said.
However, a different season would be a different story.
“In the summertime, if there was a windmill that burned and spread to nearby timber, we’d certainly need to be notified about it.”
There are no specific laws that require a company such as TransCanada to notify the Maine Forest Service if its turbine is on fire, just like a timber company wouldn’t be required to call the forest service if a piece of its machinery caught fire. However, if that fire spread to the forest, then law would kick in, Hamilton said.
“The law that would be most appropriate is Title 17-A, Section 804, Failure to Report or Control a Dangerous Fire,” Hamilton said after looking through statutes.
This law wouldn’t apply to the Kibby Mountain turbine fire, he pointed out, because there was no risk of it spreading. He added also there’s no evidence TransCanada would not have contacted the Maine Forest Service if the fire had spread.
Nevertheless, having a more structured notification system in place would make sense, he said.
“I think it would be a good idea for — and we probably should have done this before — but it would probably be a good idea to have a mechanism for them to notify us of any fire in what I would call the summer-fire season,” Hamilton said. “It would make good business practice to let us know.”
Even though the January fire doesn’t worry him, Hamilton did take a helicopter to Kibby Mountain to get a closer look at the burned-out turbine and to learn what he could do to help prepare the forest service and himself in the event of a future turbine fire.
“My concern is not elevated dramatically, but I do think it’s a good opportunity to look at it and improve our communication network with the windmill company and get an on-the-ground look around and increase our situational awareness of what may happen,” he said. “I’m not expecting problems, but it’s not a bad idea to take a look around and understand what’s going on.”
Regulators have asked the Maine Forest Service about the risk of turbine fires in the past, but it has always regarded the risk as very low, according to Doug Denico, the agency’s director.
“We haven’t seen anything there that is inordinately risky that we can’t take care of with the equipment we’ve got and the policies and procedures in place,” Denico said.
Denico said he wasn’t aware of the forest service participating in any joint training exercises with TransCanada on handling a turbine fire that spreads to the surrounding woods. TransCanada said it has emergency procedures in place, but wouldn’t offer details on them.
Turbine fires have been known to start forest fires, according to the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe, which in September 2012 released a document of best practices and guidelines of how to handle fires at wind farms. A search for a similar document among the codes and standards issued by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association produces no results.
The European document warns that these type of forest fires can be difficult to extinguish. “Very often long distance between the wind energy plant and the fire station, and the strong wind prevailing in these places, are both factors that can promote the quick spreading of forest fires,” the document reads.
Sprague Wise, fire chief in Eustis, the closest town to the Kibby Mountain wind farm, said he heard about the fire “maybe a week or two after it happened.” Even if his fire department had been notified, there’s not much it could have done, Wise said. Not only does it lack firefighting equipment that could reach the turbines, which are 260 feet above the ground, but the roads to the wind farm weren’t plowed, he said.
TransCanada doesn’t expect local fire departments to fight blazes at the wind farm, Semmens said.
“We do not expect local fire departments to risk the safety of their firefighters by going up a tall turbine tower in the event of a fire that does not pose a risk to people,” he wrote. “Most fire equipment is not designed to manage fires at such a height, and common industry practice is to allow wind turbine fires to burn out on their own.”
Warren at the DEP said it’s possible the expedited pace of past wind farm approvals could have led to the issue of turbine fires receiving less attention than it deserved. While Gov. John Baldacci was a strong supporter of wind energy and helped put in place an expedited permitting process, Gov. Paul LePage has criticized wind energy for being too expensive and preventing job creation.
“These are things we’re learning as we go along,” she said. “This industry is evolving and so is our regulatory review of it as a result. Previous administrations were really gung-ho about wind and put in place expedited permitting processes. That came at the expense of review sometimes, perhaps like this fire suppression issue. So we’re trying to not put on the brakes, but subject this sort of industrial project to the same review as other industrial development in the state.”