New wind turbine design features increase fire risk

Advances in wind turbine design and technology expose the turbine to additional risk of catastrophic fires, which, if not managed, could lead to higher insurance premiums for owners and operators.

This is the warning from automatic fire suppression systems supplier, Firetrace, which says that as wind turbines have increased in size, blades have become longer and lighter, leading some manufacturers to incorporate carbon – a known conductor of heat and electricity – into composite materials to lighten the structure while keeping it robust in extreme weather.

Lightning protection systems must also be re-designed in line with new blade lengths and structures, with improperly fitted systems leaving non-continuous paths with multiple spark gaps, the company points out.

Firetrice’s Angela Krcmar said: “We have had conversations around insurance with [owners and operators] in the past. A lot of times, it’s just based on the overall risk of the power gen class that is being operated and insured. As turbines increase in not only size but value, from a protection standpoint, we expect [greater policy restrictions] will become more prevalent. As of now, there isn’t a specific rate reduction for lower-risk turbines, but it’s on the horizon.

“Once turbine manufacturers, owners, and operators are aware of the risk associated with certain ignition sources, we can start to talk about mitigating these potential causes or failure points with solutions like arc detection systems or fire suppression systems. These solutions aren’t just available at the design stage – they can be retrofitted by owners who understand the need for full fire protection at all ignition sources.”

Faulty electrical transformers are a common root cause of wind turbine fires due to arc flashes – and depending on their placement in the turbine, can cause total destruction of the asset. According to research conducted by DNV GL, of 61 catastrophic fires in modern wind turbines over the past 7 years, a majority of these turbines had uptower transformers. While the transformers were not always the root cause of the fire, their presence in the nacelle is associated with more severe damage to the turbine.

Splices in tower cables may also generate enough heat to start a fire, Firetrace warns. Although cable materials are typically not themselves highly flammable, fires that ignite inside the tower are very difficult to suppress.

Many of these components, such as tower cables and transformers, are essential for power generation and transmission, or have significant benefits for overall asset lifetime. However, without proactive effort to manage the significant fire risk due to the designs outlined above, insurers are likely to take a more discerning approach to underwriting assets with these features.

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