Wind turbines represent the greatest potential danger to Maine’s forest/tourist economy, yet almost no one has been paying attention to that danger. The danger is from turbine fires caused by friction build-up in the gear boxes and from lightning strikes.
No one knows precisely how many turbine fires there have been because neither the federal government nor any state is required to record them. There is one valuable source that the public could consult: the Scotland-based Caithness Windfarm Information Forum – an anti-wind group that for years has been compiling turbine world-wide accident information strictly from media sources, a hit or miss record that I presume understates the actual number.
The Caithness records reveal that between 1990 and 2015 there were 295 turbine fires in the world, but the record fails to note how many of those fires spread to adjacent areas. Such information is not always reported in the very sketchy records and the words “no details” accompany 85 of the Caithness notices.
Lightning strikes are the second leading cause of turbine fires, but available statistics do not adequately reflect the danger to Maine. That is because before the year 2005, there were not many tall turbines in the world and the ones that did exist frequently ranged between 80 and 150 feet tall. Furthermore, they usually were placed in low areas with little vegetation. In the United States, the flatlands of the Great Plains are the primary sites for wind turbines.
Maine wind turbine companies, by contrast, have been and continue to be, placing 350- to 450-foot towers high up on heavily forested mountain tops (football fields are only 300 feet from goal line to goal line). It is a law of nature that the taller the metal structures and the higher their location, the more susceptible they will be to lightning strikes.
One should keep in mind that Maine’s towers contain between 150 and 250 gallons of flammable lubricants and that when fires occur, the oils can leak. There is some danger to water bodies, camps and homes from oil spills, as well as from the fires. Maine was fortunate its lone turbine fire in the Kibby mountain area occurred in winter when the ground was snow covered rather than during Maine’s almost annual drought seasons.
In Europe, it was concerns about frequent turbine fires that prompted participating nations to form an international commission to develop safety guidelines for wind turbines. Its 2010 report recommended hiring independent inspectors who would test the viability of the lubricants every two to five years with samples being sent to independent laboratories. Even today, the wind industry has not been able to develop oils that can withstand over time the enormous pressures caused by the starts and stops of the multi-ton blades. In Europe, there had been a tendency for turbine owners to neglect recommended replacement schedules, a dangerous and somewhat costly enterprise, and one may wonder if that neglect may also become operative in Maine.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has done fine work in many areas, but on wind power the agency has let its guard down. To my knowledge, DEP has never asked the Legislature to create independent inspectors or laboratories. Similarly, some of Maine’s noted environmental organizations have received noteworthy contributions from the First Wind Corp. and other wind firms. One may hope that is not the reason for their unequivocal support for unlimited wind power.
I am convinced that if firms today applied for permits to install nearly 200-foot high gas tanks on the tops of mountains, (tanks are roughly two thirds the height of the blades) the agency, with massive public support, would reject such requests. Yet, with wind turbines, that is precisely what DEP has been approving, almost without exception.
Meanwhile, Maine’s largest daily newspapers remain silent, except to allow columns and letters favorable to unlimited wind power. These are the reasons why it is up to informed citizens to fight the uphill battle against wind power.
Clyde MacDonald is a former aide to U.S. Sens. Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell. He lives in Hampden.
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