Fire at Kahuku wind farm destroys crucial building

Fire at Kahuku wind farm destroys crucial building 10PM Update
Published: Aug. 1, 2012 at 6:48 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 2, 2012 at 7:18 PM HST
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Photo courtesy: Jay Armstrong
Photo courtesy: Jay Armstrong

KAHUKU,OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A costly fire is still smoldering at a wind farm on Oahu's North Shore. Flames destroyed a crucial building, raising questions about Kahuku Wind's future.

The trouble started shortly before 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday in the battery storage building where the energy collected by the 12 turbines is stored. A company spokesman declined an on-camera interview, but told Hawaii News Now that the warehouse contained 12,000 individual battery packs.

"This is a very dangerous environment to fight a fire in because of the confined nature of the warehouse. It's a big warehouse, but what's inside are rows of racks of batteries that have very small aisles in between," explained Capt. Terry Seelig of the Honolulu Fire Department.

Seelig said a fire at the same building in April 2011 burned itself out. The latest one didn't, so crews entered the facility more than seven hours after the blaze began. They used dry chemicals from Hawaiian Electric Company to try to extinguish the flames. Firefighters faced thick smoke, toxic fumes and other hazards.

"The fire had spread through some of the batteries and was now in front of the door so the use of the dry chemical was not sufficient to knock down the fire to the point where we could extinguish," Seelig said.

Parts of the building collapsed, but crews kept the flames from spreading to other structures. The facility's innovative battery system helped to secure a $117 million loan guarantee for construction from the U.S. Department of Energy, but the new technology also created special challenges.

"That's gonna be some of the outcome of our investigation in conferring with the company as to what really happened, and what we can do better in the future for not just here, but for other wind farms that are starting to be built," Seelig said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but Seelig said it appeared that the fire started in or near the battery banks and then spread.

On Thursday, a First Wind spokesperson said they have restricted access to the site due to continued safety concerns. According to the company, it will take some time for technical experts and fire inspectors to safely enter the facility and investigate the cause and extent of the damages.

The farm has been selling power to HECO since last year. A HECO spokesman said the company has enough generating capacity to meet customers' energy needs.

First Wind is in the process of building another new wind farm near Haleiwa.

See also:
SLIDESHOW: Kahuku Wind Farm Fire

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