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Honolulu Fire Department defends actions at Kahuku wind farm

An Aug. 1 fire at the First Wind project in Kahuku could have been quickly put down had Honolulu firefighters used CO2 extinguishers found inside a battery warehouse that erupted in flames.

That was the claim made Tuesday by the president and CEO of Xtreme Power, the Texas-based company that provides the battery storage system used by First Wind to regulate the flow of renewable energy onto Oahu’s electrical grid.

“There were CO2 fire extinguishers plainly marked, and if they had used one, I think the fire would have been mitigated to a very small amount of damage,” Xtreme Power’s Alan Gotcher told state senators Mike Gabbard and Clayton Hee, who held an informational briefing Tuesday about the blaze.

Honolulu Fire Department spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig was quick to counter Gotcher’s assertion that firefighters failed to act in the best interest of the wind farm. He said the flames, toxic chemicals and unstable nature of the burning warehouse made it unsafe to use water, and deploying hand-held extinguishers was nearly impossible.

“It was a bigger fire than you’d be able to control with any small extinguisher,” Seelig told reporters. “The fire was well developed by the time we got there.”

Firefighters responded to the blaze in 14 minutes, but were told by a representative of First Wind that based on two earlier fires, the flames were likely to die down on their own. Instead, the fire burned for more than seven hours and completely destroyed the warehouse, knocking the 30-megawatt wind farm offline.

Gotcher testified a surveillance camera videotaped the fire, and as a result, 30 possible causes had been narrowed to just two – a battery ground fault in the warehouse or some type of foreign object left in the aisle near the battery rack system. Of the 14 energy storage systems Xtreme Power has deployed nationwide, only the Kahuku wind farm has experienced problems with fire, in April and May of 2011, and the fire earlier this year.

“So, we believe energy storage is safe, and we’re learning from this fire and were implementing corrective actions across our entire fleet,” said Gotcher.

Gabbard, however, was not convinced when asked about the safety of the Kahuku wind farm’s battery storage system, which is also being used on the 21-megawatt Kaheawa II First Wind project on Maui.

“I think it remains to be seen,” Gabbard responded. “I think that’s why we had this informational briefing today. It is new technology, and in our efforts to get off our addiction to fossil fuels…public safety has got to be at the top of the list.”

Officials from the Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response (HEER) Office said air samples taken in the Kahuku area during and after the fire tested within the normal range for lead. However, the sampling was performed by two companies hired directly by Xtreme Power and First Wind, which Hee took exception to.

“I’m not suggesting there’s anything nefarious going on,” said Hee. “But the public needs to have the confidence that the fox isn’t guarding the hen house.”

Keith Kawaoka, the program manager for the state’s HEER Office, said budget restrictions prevent the Department of Health from conducting independent testing.

“This procedure that we follow is a normal process that we follow for any site or incident that we’re involved with,” he said.

Hee said state lawmakers would likely introduce a resolution or pass legislation that forces the DOH to conduct independent testing during emergencies like the wind farm fire in Kahuku.

“We could ask the PUC to review their parameters (and) their criteria and what they require,” said Hee. “If they’re reluctant to do so, then it could be legislated.”

First Wind Vice President of Transmission Thomas Siegel said the Kahuku wind project would remain offline until at least the third quarter of next year. He said under the company’s contract with Hawaiian Electric Co., a battery storage system is not a requirement.

“HECO doesn’t tell us to install a battery storage system,” he said, “They establish performance standards that we have to meet.”

A new wind project on Maui being developed by Sempra U.S. Gas and Power on 1,466 acres at UlupalaKua Ranch is scheduled to begin generating power by the end of the year.

Sempra Director of Engineering and Construction Scott Furgerson told Gabbard and Hee the energy storage system at the wind farm would include a fire suppression system developed by battery provider A123 Systems.