A lack of standardization for fire risk assessments (FRAs) leaves the wind industry exposed, finds new research by Firetrace, a provider of fire suppression technology.
JP Conkwright, assistant professor of fire protection and safety engineering technology at Eastern Kentucky University, has overseen fire protection in the wind turbine industry since 2009. While he’s seen OEMs and customers implement additional fire detection and safety into wind turbine designs, he says much remains to be done.
“There seems to be little evidence that wind farm operators are conducting ‘holistic fire risk assessments’ following some kind of recognized standard,” he says.
Angela Krcmar, global sales manager-Wind for Firetrace, echoes his sentiments. Krcmar, who has been involved in wind farm fire safety since 2008, says “[wind farm] fire safety is traditionally reactionary not proactive” but adds when problems occur, the results are expensive.
In a fire, the wind turbine gets destroyed 90% of the time. Replacing the structure can cost up to $9 million. During recommissioning, companies can lose up to 12-18 months of revenue.
However, the losses, though considerable, pale compared those racked up in fires at larger power generation assets. This fact, Conkwright points out, generates complacency in fire protection. He shares there’s an urgency when larger power-generating assets get destroyed; these units’ produce 600- to 800-megawatts of power, sometimes more. But when fire destroys a single wind turbine, the industry loses 1.5 to 3 megawatts of power.
“The losses from a physical asset standpoint are much, much smaller than your standard power generation loss,” he says. “As a result, the wind industry hasn’t had the same focus on fire loss and FRAs for wind turbines.”
Krcmar stresses wind turbine operators must factor in other related losses. Operators often locate wind farms in remote locations where a runaway fire might destroy nearby land and the local community.
“Effective fire risk assessments increase the level of protection for wind farm assets by reducing the risk of wind turbines being damaged or destroyed by fire, reducing insurance costs and boosting the reputation of both the operator and the industry at large,” Krcmar says.
Why FRAs Do Not Happen
Off-shore wind farms perform FRAs more often than on-shore wind farms, reports Conkwright. But in both, these assessments are rare.
Instead, operators leave fire risk mitigation to the OEMs as part of the design process, he says. Operators assume OEMs will cover fire loss for turbines under warranty. But when fires occur, it’s typically insurance companies that cover the claims. Though insurers cover the losses, the operation itself pays for it through increased premiums later.
Lack of resources, underestimating the costs of repairing or replacing wind turbines damaged by fire, and a lack of legal requirements for FRAs also stand in the way of these FRAs, adds Conkwright.
Benefits of FRAs
Effective FRAs reduce the probability of fire events and protect personnel and wind farm assets, save on repair costs, reduce insurance costs, lower risk for wildfires, and boost reputations for companies and the wind farm industry overall.
FRAs perform in-depth review/evaluations of a wind farm to uncover fire risks and provide recommendations to either eliminate or control them.
These evaluations may assess one fire risk protection concept or system (single system assessment) or examine the overall level of risk (multisystem assessment). A multisystem assessment requires more sophisticated methods to evaluate the overall impact of the “availability, reliability, and operation of both passive systems—which prevent the spread of fire via fire-resistance rated compartments, for example,—and active fire protection systems such as smoke detectors and fixed fire suppression systems,” according to “How to Effectively Evaluate Fire Risk.”
While every wind farm may have a different timeline, operators should get an FRA during the building phase and repeat these evaluations at least every time a re-powering event occurs. “If you are changing the facility, you need a new FRA,” Conkwright stresses.
Krcmar backs her recommendation up a bit, noting a good start would be the industry doing FRAs in the first place. “Most of the industry is not doing them at all,” she says. “If you do them in the construction phase, then repeat them midlife, it would be a giant leap forward.”
Elements of a Comprehensive FRA
The most crucial step is hiring the right professional to complete an FRA. Hiring a wind farm fire risk expert ensures a comprehensive FRA.
“There are fire engineers with no to little experience in the wind industry and there are wind industry professionals who know little about fire protection engineering,” says Conkwright. “A wind fire risk expert will assess the risks posed to your assets and the surrounding area based on experience gained at other sites.”
The assessment then examines the total fire risk of the facility and protection measures to reduce it. “These assessments may identify that a turbine has a specific issue, such as a fuel package, and then ask what’s the plan for this?” Conkwright says. “The FRA focuses on detectability and recoverability. Can we see the fire coming? What detection needs to be in place? How do we recover from a fire event after it happens? Can we mitigate the fire before it gets too big? An FRA will help you get a handle on these things.”
Most comprehensive FRAs involve five steps.
- Identify fire hazards and sources of ignition. Ignition sources will vary depending on the type of turbine and its location.
- Evaluate the risks and decide whether existing precautions are adequate or more needs to be done. Though 60% to 70% of the risks may be generic, some assessments must be tailored to wind turbines and the site itself.
- Determine additional control where necessary.
- Communicate and document the FRA results.
- Review mitigation steps.
Share the Results
After completing an FRA, it’s critical to share the results. Conkwright advises sharing the report with colleagues responsible for fire safety, the operations team, the finance team and those responsible for capital expenditures.
“The team responsible for the capex for a new development differs from the team responsible for the operations of the fleet once it’s online—it’s important to make connections with these two teams because there is typically a disconnect,” says Krcmar.
Also, share the documents with external finance providers, colleagues negotiating insurance coverage, loss adjustors and insurance providers, and the local fire department, she adds.
“Once assessments are complete and all stakeholders are consulted, operators can work out the best ways to protect their people, operation, revenue and surrounding communities from fire—perhaps through detection or suppression systems,” Krcmar says.
Wind farms need fire detection and fire suppression systems and ground or arc fault detection systems, Conkwright adds.
Smoke detection, flame detection, and heat detection can help detect a fire incident before it becomes bad. Suppression technology comes into play as it allows operators to douse a fire before it damages the wind turbine.
All these systems have installation and technology considerations, Krcmar adds. Detection and suppression systems must be near potential ignition sources. But placement must also consider the environment within the turbine. Dust and extreme temperatures can affect how the technology functions. Select a detection and suppression system that takes dust and debris, and extreme temperatures, into consideration.
“Smoke detection is a useful tool in every building,” she says. “But there is significant dust, debris and wind flow in a wind turbine that can challenge standard detection methods.”
False detection and triggers are all too common when sites install the wrong technology, she adds. Here, reliable heat detection and more localized detection systems works best, as does technology that looks for heat rise or an open flame.
Firetrace uses pressurized linear pneumatic tubing that looks for a rise in heat or an open flame. If the tubing experiences temperatures between 350- and 400-degrees Fahrenheit, it ruptures and triggers an alarm. “If the tubing responds in any way, it will signal operators to service the system, which means they should shut down the wind turbine,” she says. “The technology reduces the false activation you can see with other types of detection.”
Technology placement is also critical. “You want to have the technology as close to an ignition source as possible,” Krcmar says, noting that OEMs and customers must work together to determine the most likely ignition sources and best places to put detection technologies.
“It reduces the potential spread and propagation of fire in that space [when technologies are located close to ignition sources],” she says. “if you’re detecting early, shutting down and suppressing locally, you have a better chance of being able to get backup and operating quickly.”
Visit to read the entire Firetrace report, “How to Evaluate Fire Risk at Wind Farms” at https://www.firetrace.com/hubfs/_img/reports/Firetrace-Report-How-To-Evaluate-Fire-Risk.pdf?utm_campaign=Wind%20FY22&utm_source=Tamarindo&utm_medium=direct-download&utm_content=fra-report.