MARTINSBURG — If a wind turbine catches fire in the forest, and no one is around to see it burn, what is the risk level to the surrounding forest?
An investigation continues into a fire late last month at a Lewis County wind farm. The hub and rectangular cabin-like structure at the top of the tower that holds the computer “brain” — called the nacelle — of one of the most remote turbines in Avangrid Renewable’s Roaring Brook Wind project high on the Tug Hill plateau at the end of French Road, was destroyed by a fire in the early hours of April 29.
There were no lightning strikes recorded in the area the night of the fire although rain that started Friday evening carried into Saturday.
From the ground, it appears the tower base may only be damaged where it meets the nacelle and the three blades are blackened but still attached to what is left of the hub, but only the nacelle’s “bones,” floor and some of its contents are still visible.
Because there is no access to the turbine’s exact location about 500 feet beyond French Road’s end, it’s unclear if turbine debris fell the 300 feet to the ground below or flew into nearby trees.
The Martinsburg Fire Department was not contacted to secure the surrounding area and no 911 call was logged, but the company’s automatic monitoring system lost communications with the turbine and the local Avangrid team was notified, according to company spokesperson Mariel Huerta.
“Our National Control Center monitors all Avangrid facilities across the country 24/7. When the incident occurred, the NCC team received a notification of the turbine losing communication and notified the team on site. This constant monitoring and strict safety procedures allow the company to identify and mitigate potential risks,” Ms. Huerta wrote in an email.
She added that emergency procedures are “designed contemplating each facility’s specific characteristics” and the company’s teams “work very closely with the local authorities to make sure that all responses and security measures are aligned and well-coordinated.”
No answers were given about procedures specifically created for the hard-to-reach Roaring Brook turbines.
The National Fire Protection Association suggests, but does not require, fire detection and suppression systems for wind turbines and it is not clear what the state’s fire codes for energy projects in forested areas require.
Some local residents, who preferred not to be named, said they were concerned the only thing that prevented a forest fire from being ignited was the rain that night and that if sparks or falling debris had ignited a fire, that there are not enough firefighting capabilities nearby to contain it quickly and not enough capacity in the entire area to fight a large-scale forest fire.
“The windmill companies maintain their own equipment. They notify (us) if (we’re) needed,” Lewis County Emergency Management Coordinator Robert A. Mackenzie wrote in an email. “Should the fire departments be needed they will respond.”
Industry-wide, most turbine fires are allowed to burn out, according to wind energy engineering publications online, largely because with heights of more than 250 feet at nacelle-level — about 300 for the Roaring Brook turbine — ground crews would not be able to reach the flames and if the tower became unstable, being too close would put firefighters and other ground crews at risk.
Although studies vary, fires happen, on average, with 1 in every 2,000 to 3,000 turbines. Studies all acknowledge fire incidents are significantly underreported by companies.
Ms. Huerta said an investigation is underway and officials at the Lewis County Industrial Development Agency said it is their understanding the turbine will be replaced.
The remaining 19 turbines in the project are all still functioning normally.
The company would not indicate the loss of income due to the defunct turbine for the company, landowners and municipalities or the loss of energy into the larger grid.
The fire is the latest in a series of setbacks that have plagued Roaring Brook since it was first proposed in 2007.
The project was delayed for more than 10 years because of low energy prices until 2018, when state renewable energy incentive funding brought it back, moving relatively quickly to the construction phase and, by October 2021, the blades appeared to be turning.
In December 2021, the company and Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul announced that Roaring Brook was operational, leading the host municipalities — the town of Martinsburg, Lowville Academy and Central Schools and Lewis County — under a contract with the company for payments in lieu of taxes, referred to as PILOT agreements, to believe the negotiated payments by the company would begin in January 2022.
The project did not complete the testing necessary to get a commercial operation date until July due to the incorrect installation of the turbine blades. That required removal and reattachment, according to sources involved with the project.
The company did not answer a question to verify the cause of the operation’s delay.
Although the municipalities again budgeted for Roaring Brook’s PILOT revenue to begin in January, the commercial operation date the project was given for July missed the March deadline last year for a January payment this year. Municipalities were told they would have to wait until January 2024 for their first payment.
“When taxing jurisdictions voiced their concerns over the timing of the payment this year … I said I’ll see what I can do,” said Cheyenne L. Steria, finance director for Naturally Lewis, the administration team for the IDA. With the help of the specialist attorneys the IDA now engages for PILOT discussions and other renewable energy issues, Ms. Steria was able to get Avangrid to agree to make their first payment at the end of this month.
“Our relationship with Lewis County is long-standing and positive, and we strive to keep it that way by collaborating with them to benefit the people who live and work here,” Ms. Huerta said.
Martinsburg Supervisor Terrence J. Thisse informed the town council in an emergency meeting Tuesday to get approval for the date change, noting the other terms of the PILOT agreement which requires payments to start at $624,000 and will end at $1,012,000 by the last payment 30 years from now. Payments increase every five years based on 2% more being added annually.
Avangrid’s next payment of $624,000, will be paid in January. In 2028, the PILOT will bump up to about $686,000 according to Mr. Thisse.
“I commend Roaring Brook at least doing right by the community when legally, they did not have to budge,” Mrs. Steria said.
By making the payment on May 31, it falls within the current fiscal year for all three municipalities being that the school district’s financial year ends in June.
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