John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
And they're underreported by as much as 10 times, according to new research.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to wind turbines behaving badly, blade failure is the No. 1 cause of accidents. What is less expected is that the second leading cause of disaster are turbines going up in flames, according to a new study.
Wind-turbine fires are a "big problem that is not currently being fully reported," say a team of researchers from London, Edinburgh, and Sweden. How's that? Well, after conducting a survey of the world's wind farms—which involved sifting through government documents, news reports, and literature from anti-wind-turbine groups—they found fires to be underreported by as much as 10 times. Instead of the publicly reported average of 11.7 conflagrations a year, they believe wind farms suffer more than 117 fires on an annual basis, they write in the Fire Safety Journal.
Turbines often incorporate quickly combustible materials such as plastics and hydraulic oil. They can catch fire for a number of reasons: Overheating is one cause, faulty mechanics another. There are electrical malfunctions and errors in maintenance. But the biggest trigger, the researchers say, are lightning strikes setting off turbines like immense tiki torches, which is what happened to this one in Germany in 2004. The damage was estimated at $2.4 million:
Once ablaze, rivers of oxygen-rich wind act act as fuel for the flames. That can make fighting turbine fires a difficult task, as does their towering height and frequent locations out in the middle of nowhere. Of all the wind-farm fires since the 1980s, 90 percent have led to the total immolation of the turbine.
These fires shouldn't scare countries away from embracing green wind energy, as it's still a relatively safe technology, say the researchers:
By comparison with other energy industries, fire accidents are much less frequent in wind turbines than other sectors such as oil and gas, which globally has thousands of fire accidents per year. However, fire accidents can have a considerable economic impact on the wind farm industry, say the team. Each wind turbine costs in excess of £2 million and generates an estimated income of more than £500,000 per year. Any loss or downtime of these valuable assets makes the industry less viable and productive.
The team suggests that the wind industry adopt new tactics to prevent more of its architecture going up in smoke. The measures range from using nonflammable oils and insulating materials, smoke alarms, and lightning-protection systems to building monitoring systems so it's clear when a turbine needs an immediate tune-up.