State senators pressed the developers of a North Shore wind farm on Tuesday about the safety of their technology in light of a major fire that destroyed their battery storage facility and sent toxic fumes into the air.
Executives from Boston-based First Wind, the developer of the wind farm, and Austin-based XTreme Power, which built the storage facility, said the August fire at the Kahuku wind farm on Oahu was rare and its cause still under investigation. The wind farm also experienced two previous fires that destroyed inverters after coming online in 2011.
“We believe energy storage is safe and we are learning from this fire,” said Alan Gotcher, president and CEO of Xtreme Power at the hearing attended by Sen. Mike Gabbard and Sen. Clayton Hee. Gotcher said that other than their batteries at the Kahuku wind farm on Oahu, the company’s technology had never caught fire before.
Gotcher also said the fire department could have acted more quickly to put out the blaze. Meantime, lawmakers grilled state health officials for accepting results of the wind farm developers’ own tests for chemical pollution after the fire.
The energy industry views advances in battery storage technology as a major factor in allowing more solar and wind energy to be incorporated into the electric grids without causing major system disruptions. Being able to store the energy provides a hedge against sudden gusts of wind or clouds that block the sun. And with Hawaii’s small electric grids – each island has its own independent system – battery storage is seen as particularly important to helping the state achieve its aggressive renewable energy goals.
The battery storage technology at the Kahuku wind farm was seen as cutting edge, allowing the wind farm to qualify for a $117 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy under a program designed to encourage innovative technologies. Not only was it designed to smooth out power to the electric grid, but also boost energy output. It was one of the largest battery storage facilities in the world, according to industry data.
But what went wrong is still a matter of dispute.
Gotcher said that the company had ruled out 28 out of 30 potential causes of the fire. He said that right now officials were looking into whether the problem stemmed from the battery ground fault or foreign material left between the inverters and battery access.
First Wind has installed similar battery storage technology at its Kawailoa II wind farm on Maui that went online in July, according to Tom Siegel, vice president of transmission for First Wind, who testified at the hearing. He said that there had not been any problems with the battery storage system on Maui.
XTreme Power Says Fire Could Have Been Contained
While the energy developers jointly worked to reassure lawmakers and the public that the technology was safe, XTreme Power’s CEO, in an awkward moment, also blamed the Honolulu Fire Department and First Wind officials for the extent of the destruction to the storage facility.
Gotcher said that the fire could have been easily contained with only minor damage if fire department officials had used a couple of carbon dioxide fire extinguishers that were onsite to put out the blaze.
“If they had used one, I think the fire would have been mitigated to a very small amount of damage,” he said.
Gotcher said the fire was small when firemen arrived on scene at 5 a.m., about 40 minutes after the fire broke out, but that First Wind advised them not to enter the facility.
“I think the fire department did what it thought it should do based on the experience and guidance of First Wind,” he said.
The fire department held an impromptu press conference a few hours later refuting Gotcher’s comments.
“When our firefighters first arrived there, there was smoke coming out of the larger warehouse and there was no way that was a small fire, where going in with an extinguisher would have been successful,” sad Terry Seelig, the fire department’s public information officer.
Seelig said that firefighters arrived on scene 14 minutes after receiving a call, either from a First Wind or XTreme Power official. He said that there seemed to be some delay or confusion in contacting the fire department on the part of the companies. Firefighters didn’t go inside right away because they were concerned about lead and other toxic fumes in the air.
Seelig said there had been some hope that the fire would extinguish itself, as in the case of the two prior fires at the facility.
Representatives from First Wind “were suggesting and advising us that this fire might do the same thing,” he said. “But it was obvious after an hour or so that it as growing.”
The fire burned for hours, gutting the building.
The Fox Minding the Hen House?
The wind farm developers were not the only ones under scrutiny. The senators also grilled state health department officials about studies that were conducted to determine whether toxic chemicals released during the fire posed a health risk.
The health department instructed First Wind and XTreme Power to hire a company to conduct studies on air, soil and surface quality. The results indicated that lead levels, the major concern, were well within safe levels, according Elizabeth Galvez, an official with the health department’s hazard evaluation and emergency response office.
But Hee said he was very concerned that the state health department didn’t conduct its own studies, or at least choose the contractor for the studies.
“Don’t you see that it is a potential conflict in terms of the perception of who is doing the reporting?” he said, noting that he wasn’t suggesting that the wind developers were involved in anything nefarious.
“What confidence does the public have knowing that the fox asked whomever to guard the hen house?”
The health department said it was standard practice to leave it up to the companies to conduct their own environmental studies and that it didn’t have the resources to do the work themselves.
The battery storage facility will be demolished after hazardous material from the facility is removed and shipped to the mainland, according to Galvez.
Repairs to the Kahuku wind farm are not expected to be completed until the third quarter of 2013, according to Siegel, who said that a decision had not yet been made as to whether it will again include battery storage.
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