This recent photo of the wind turbines on Lowell Mountain in northern Vermont in a lightning storm provokes the thoughts of the dangers of forest fires as these machines are erected throughout heavily forested areas in northern New England. We know the turbines have lightning rods, but so have the thousands of barns that have burned down after lightning struck their rods. If not properly maintained, lightning rods are simply ornaments, not protection. A lightning strike on a turbine not properly protected could cause the nacelle to explode. We are all too familiar with wind turbines on fire, including the one at Kibby in Maine.
Further, my thoughts go to the likelihood that rather than a storm passing over a ridge with few lightning strikes, putting all that metal high above a ridge probably causes more strikes from the electrical disturbance within the storm clouds. It is a logical extension to believe increased strikes cause more probability that nearby trees on the ridge will get struck by lightning, creating a forest fire. This could be catastrophic, as most wind turbines are located where there would be limited initial fire suppression response capability. Even in Lincoln, where there is a full time fire department, the fire chief testified that they could not respond to putting out a nacelle fire at Rollins Wind project. The best they could do is respond within about a half hour and try to keep fire in the woods suppressed. Good luck with that if there has been a drought, the woods are filled with slash that is tinder dry, and there is a good breeze. It results in a major forest fire.
Good questions to hold in mind.....yet the answers are not so clear. Two things jump to mind:
1--lightning doesn't seek the highest point as much as we think; see picture above, with the bolt landing downslope from two much-higher turbines.
2--New Englands's not the main testing ground for this concern; rather, the vast numbers of turbines in the much windier and stormier "supercell central" of Texas Oklahoma Kansas Nebraska, often built amidst often parched grasslands (including some ridges), where huge fires shaped the landscape. Way more lighting strikes in that region than here.
So, yes, forest or prairie fires started by lightning-zapped turbines is something to watch for. But so far, it seems to occur rarely if ever. (Do we know of any actual incidents with turbine/lightning-sparked fires? I have to imagine it's happened in the great plains at some point...)
The electronics that monitor and control these turbines do not need a direct hit to disable them. The static is sufficient to burn out these mini devices. A solar Flare of sufficient magnitude can currently do this to the Grid Tie systems as well. When dealing with pico amps of current in a device, which by design is over rated to 200 to 300% for endurance, even with shielding a close strike can be a killer. This is one of the reasons to switch our land based communications to fiber optics where electricity is only used at the points of signal generation and reception and is not affected by static discharges with surges. Micro components, though they save power for the amount of work they do when compared to old vacuum tubes, need even less static to overpower them. Cell phones, would be the first to go out, in massive solar flare, near lightning strikes, high altitude nuclear destinations.
Fire fighting equipment is part of most of the recent offerings for communities for a reason. They know the potential exists. Not so much for the turbines but the forests. But these communities are not looking for that type of equipment, and none to that caliber is being offered. OOps!
Is Maine preparing in that regard? I doubt it, as I have not heard of any request for additional airborne or ground equipment to meet that possible need.
My neighbor's ham radio tower got hit during a storm this summer that also had some lightning strikes near my home (on top of a hill in northern Maine). I was going to look into lightning rods but I guess I won't! I read that the second leading cause of industrial scale wind turbine "dysfunction" was lightning strikes. New England will be the testing ground for these turbines erected on our ridgelines and mountains. As for generating fires, are the wind developers now required to report fires in the nacelles?
It was the salesmans pitch that Lightning Rods protected homes, back in the day where cedar roofing or shakes were common. Though in actual performance, when supplied with the proper grounding cables, they only attracted the lightning by placing the ground potential on the roof tops higher into the air. This actually promoted more home fires from lightning strikes and sales soon plummeted, with lawsuits rising.
Living near a river with a solid ledge bottom (not much silt deposits) over 29 years I have noticed that lightning strikes tend to follow the river and hit most often where a solid ground potential exists. Though the general average appeared to be mostly atmospheric discharges and distant there always seemed to be at least one hard hit on the river bottom. One caught me by surprise, as it passed from the river, 1700 feet to my home, back through the electrical ground and into the CMP grid. I was operating my printing press at the time, and It was a sufficient shock to make me realize that electrical shocks can come from either direction.
Yes these can act as a promoter of more forest fires.
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