Cause of wind farm fire still under investigation

Honolulu Star Advertiser - December 5, 2012

Members of the state Senate Energy and Environment Committee expressed frustration Tuesday after learning that an investigation into the cause of a fire that destroyed First Wind’s battery energy storage facility at a Kahuku wind farm in August is still not complete.

The fire was the third reported at the facility since it opened in March 2011. First Wind executive Tom Siegel said it won’t be until summer that the 15-megawatt facility can come back online.

The state Health and Hono¬lulu Fire departments and First Wind are investigating the cause of the fire, and there was no estimate on when they might be done.
Senate Energy and Environment Chairman Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Maka¬¬kilo) said it remains to be seen whether battery energy storage systems like the one installed by Xtreme Power LLC for First Wind are safe for Hawaii.

“It is new technology, and in our efforts to get off our addiction on fossil fuels and keep some of that $4-$6 billion that we’re spending on oil every year and transitioning into these clean renewable energies, public safety’s got to be at that the top,” Gabbard said.

Siegel said no decision has been made about rebuilding the facility.

Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Heeia-Laie-Wai¬alua) said it’s a “no-brainer” that installing fire detection and suppression equipment should be required in such facilities.
Hee said he’s also puzzled why the Health Department allowed First Wind and Xtreme Power to choose the investigators hired to measure the air quality after the fire. “The public needs to have the confidence that the fox isn’t guarding the henhouse,” Hee said.

Health officials, who said lead levels tested after the fire were normal, told the committee it was standard practice to allow the parties to hire the investigators.
Alan Gotcher, president and chief executive officer of Xtreme Power, said fires at the storage facility in April and May 2011 were caused by manufacturing defects in capacitors in vendor-supplied equipment. The much larger August fire was entirely different, originating near the base of a battery rack, he said.

Gotcher said that while the Hono¬lulu Fire Department responded promptly to the third fire, it waited more than seven hours to battle it based on First Wind’s advice and their own expertise. “The facility, unfortunately, is a total loss.”

HFD spokesman Terry Seelig, however, said firefighters determined that the fire was well developed and beyond the capability of the resources they had when they arrived. Once those additional resources arrived, the fire had progressed even further. “We attempted to go in and were unsuccessful in controlling the fire,” he said.

“There were really very little alternatives that weren’t extremely dangerous in terms of going into a warehouse that has an unknown amount of fire that were not able to be recognized or controlled.”