April 09, 2020
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Turbine fire illuminates need for reporting mandate

Jim Anderberg | Photo courtesy of James Anderberg
Jim Anderberg | Photo courtesy of James Anderberg
A fire on Jan. 23, 2013, destroyed this turbine -- one of 44 at TransCanada's Kibby Mountain wind farm in northern Franklin County.

Wind power development offers Maine an opportunity to diversify the state’s energy portfolio by adding a locally generated alternative source to fossil fuels. But the turbine fire at Kibby Mountain in January demonstrates the need to adapt regulation of Maine’s emerging wind energy industry to reflect newly available information.

The Jan. 16 blaze that destroyed the gearbox and electrical components behind the blade of a Kibby Mountain turbine is the first reported case of a turbine fire at a wind farm in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Speculation about its cause and the possibility that repeat incidents could trigger forest fires is contributing to a heated political debate about wind energy in Maine. Objective, publicly accessible data, not politically motivated guesswork, should drive that debate.

The statutes that allow expedited permitting of grid-scale wind energy projects in Maine do not require notification of fires, but they should.

Mainers have a right to know about fires or other potentially hazardous situations at large-scale industrial facilities like wind farms. A simple change to wind farm permitting rules to require that operators report fires at their facilities in a timely manner would help public safety and industry officials compile data that could be used to mitigate future hazards.

A template for such a reporting system exists with the DEP’s current guidelines for public notification of hazardous waste and materials spills. Because the DEP now has permitting authority over wind development, the agency would be an appropriate first point of contact — after emergency responders — that could relay information about the fires to the Maine Forest Service, Maine Emergency Management Agency, State Fire Marshal’s Office or other affected parties.

A fire reporting mandate would also keep the focus on public safety impacts of wind energy generation technology and help puncture the bellows of opponents whose conspiracy theories inflate with notions of a “cover up.” While it’s important to note that TransCanada voluntarily reported the incident to DEP because of the potential for a hazardous materials spill, enacting a reporting requirement would eliminate any question about process and remove the opportunity for opponents to impugn the motives of developers.

Wind energy generation is relatively new in North America, making information about turbine fires on this continent scarce. Most of the data, and response strategies derived from that data, come from Europe. It indicates that wind turbine fires remain rare, with a history of damage confined almost exclusively to each individual structure.

A summary of wind turbine accident data compiled by the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, a Scottish group that opposes large-scale wind farm development, documents 200 wind turbine fires worldwide since the 1990s. With information tabulated from media reports, industry releases and government records, CWIF ranks fires as the second most common form of turbine accidents, after blade failure. However, despite a marked increase in the number of wind turbines erected internationally, the number of turbine fires each year has hovered between 13 and 21 during the past decade.

In September 2012, the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe issued wind turbine fire protection guidelines. They include prevention and risk reduction strategies, general safety planning tips and firefighting protocols based on analysis of turbine fires in Europe. The safety recommendations derive directly from individual incident reports of turbine fires in Europe, demonstrating the value of comprehensive reporting and centralized collection.

As Maine moves ahead with wind energy development, a reporting requirement for turbine fires here would create a data set that would enable public safety officials, lawmakers and industry experts to conduct similar analysis of conditions inherent to this state. It could help pinpoint problems with specific turbine components and ensure that the state’s regulatory standards evolve to address emerging concerns that were not apparent five years ago when Maine enacted laws designed to welcome wind energy.

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