BLOOMFIELD, Neb. – Company officials have suspended work at the Elkhorn Ridge wind farm after Tuesday’s turbine fire 260 feet in the air, which hospitalized a worker who suffered burns while atop the turbine.
The incident occurred at one of the 27 turbines on the 80-megawatt wind farm under construction north of Bloomfield, Neb. The project is owned by the Edison Mission Group of Irvine, Calif. Once completed, Elkhorn Ridge will become Nebraska’s largest wind farm.
Edison Mission has launched an internal investigation, said spokeswoman Susan Olavarria. The cause and extent of the turbine damage have not been determined, she said.
“At this time, no electrical work is being done on site until the cause of the fire is found and corrected,” she said.
Vestas Wind Energy, responsible for construction of the turbines, has launched its own probe into the incident, spokesman Roby Roberts said. The Danish company headquarters its North American operations in Portland, Ore.
“We have a team of professionals who are conducting a vigorous investigation. We have to see what we find,” he said. “The site is closed while the investigation goes on.”
The effort takes on a different dimension because this week’s turbine fire is “very unusual,” Roberts said.
Olavarria agreed, saying Edison Mission had not experienced anything like it before.
“This is my first time in this business that I have ever seen a fire like this,” she said. “I have never heard of a fire at a turbine.”
Roberts disputed initial reports that the fire involved an explosion.
“We are not ready to confirm this was an explosion,” he said.
For safety reasons, the accident site has been sealed off from the general public, Olavarria said.
“We have blocked off the front entrance to the process to make sure spectators don’t get in,” she said. “We don’t feel there is any imminent danger. It’s just to prevent onlookers from coming onto the site.”
In the meantime, further progress on the wind farm has been put on hold, Roberts said.
“My understanding is that we have stopped all work until we understand the problem,” he said. “When we feel secure that we have our hands around what the issues are, then we move forward. (Right now), we don’t have a complete, total picture.”
Questions about the state’s investigation were referred to Sean Lindgren of the state fire marshal’s office in Albion, Neb. Lindgren could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
However, Lindgren told the Norfolk (Neb.) Daily News that he anticipated a lengthy process.
“The investigation is going to take some time,” he said. “We haven’t seen a lot of fires like these.”
A total of two Vestas workers were injured at the Elkhorn Ridge fire, Roberts said. He declined to release their names.
“One (worker) was smoke inhalation who was treated and released right away,” Roberts said. “The other one had burns and is in the hospital right now. We have got people there with the family and are very concerned about him. His condition seems to be improving.”
Bloomfield fire chief Rodger Freeman said the burn victim was airlifted to Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Roberts declined to confirm the location of the hospital and further details on the victim’s condition.
One worker was alone at the top of the turbine at the time of Tuesday’s incident, Olavarria said. The worker was outside the turbine, in front of the nose, getting it ready for commercial operations when the fire occurred, she said.
Another employee, standing at the base, started climbing the turbine to offer assistance, Olavarria said. The employee who received the burns was able to come down the turbine on his own, she said. A third worker ran to the scene to provide aid, she said.
Freeman said his fire department responded to the call around 11:30 a.m. and remained for about an hour.
“Basically, we were there to protect exposures and keep people away,” he said, explaining his department was not equipped to extinguish an electrical fire. In addition, the tower’s height made a response difficult if not impossible, he said.
The fire burned itself out, he added.
The timing of the fire provided an advantage in one way, Freeman said. The nearby corn fields were no longer dry as they would have been earlier in the fall, eliminating one fire hazard, he said.
While he could not confirm the cause of the fire, Freeman said the turbine’s cone does contain oil.
Elkhorn Ridge has drawn statewide attention in recent months. Nebraska will triple its wind-energy production upon completion of Elkhorn Ridge and the neighboring 42-megawatt Crofton Hills wind farm. The wind farms will sell their electricity to the Nebraska Public Power District.
Elkhorn Ridge was scheduled to become operational this month. However, officials say they are not rushing to put the wind farm into production until the investigation is completed surrounding this week’s fire.
Edison Mission places a priority on safety and will take the needed time to make corrections, Olavarria said.
“We have a pretty rigorous internal safety control not only to benefit the employees but the community as a whole,” she said. “They are not (moving forward) for as long as it takes to complete the investigation.”
Vestas is taking the same approach, Roberts said.
“We are not putting out any timeline,” he said. “We are taking as long as it takes.”
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