Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod seems to be an outdated way for businesses to protect against lightning strikes. Today’s technology has increased the risk associated with damage from lightning strikes. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2010, fires caused by lightning strikes resulted in over $1 billion in insured homeowner’s losses.
The costs can be even higher for the oil and gas industry; a 2006 study published in the Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries found lightning strikes are the most common cause of accidents involving storage tanks at refineries and petrochemical plants. The institute’s concern for protecting facilities from lightning strikes continues to be a concern and started with their original issuance of protection standards in 1953, which have been updated seven times since then.
Matt Jones, project manager for Ashley Automation & Technology (oilfield electrical firm) said, “For the guys who’ve been around for 30 or 40 years, it’s not if, it’s when they’re going to get hit.” David Miller, director of Standards for the American Petroleum Institute, said that lightning is a big risk for oil and gas production and other industrial facilities even though it’s not the only risk these companies face.
Lightning strikes are lowest on the West Coast and highest in Florida. In Texas, Houston receives more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the state, according to a Texas A & M professor founder of the National Lightning Detection Network, Richard Orville.
Franklin’s lightning rod design is still the most accepted method used globally: although modern materials have been used to update its 1700s design. Jones said While companies continue attempt to protect themselves from the elements, there is a growing interest in a more modern technology.
Roy Carpenter, a former engineer for Rockwell International (NASA contractor) came up with a different way to protect rockets from lightning. Lightning rods draw lightning and send the charge to the ground through a conducting wire, while Carpenter’s system by design, disrupt the electrical charge and in essence make conditions less favorable for lightning to commence. Carpenter started a company after he left Roswell which is now known as Lightning Eliminators & Consultants. Although Roy Carpenter passed away in 2007, his company is still in business. Located in Boulder Colorado, Carpenter’s son serves as chairman of the board of directors continuing his father’s legacy.
Even though the system is not accepted by all, a growing share of the company’s clientele is made up by energy companies. Avram Sanders, President and CEO said, Lightning rods attract lightning and send it into the ground. If you had a multimillion-dollar facility, would you want to attract that much energy?” He said that many companies in Houston’s Ship Channel area use the Carpenter’s system. Although Exxon-Mobil didn’t respond to requests to discuss the system, its chemical Baytown plant uses the system.
In 1999, Carpenter’s system was installed over a portion of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama and the company will continue to use it: it will be installed at the nuclear plant this currently under construction, according to the authority’s program manager for electromagnetic interference and instrumentation and controls systems, Rick Brehm. The protection was added to a 600-foot-high stack of camera and guard towers at Browns Ferry.
Previously the area was protected by lightning rods and still sustained damage by lightning. Brehm said, “When we lose security equipment, it’s not just the dollars of the equipment, but having to staff security officers to cover the area so were paying personnel costs as well as equipment costs.” He said lightning strikes within 500 meters of the stack decreased by 80 percent, in comparison to the rest of the area. Since the system was installed, there’s no sign the stack has been struck by lightning. This is based on an internal study where the company tracked lightning strikes three years before and after installing the system, within a 500-meter, three-mile, and 120-mile radius of the stack.
However, Bud VanSickle, executive director of the Lightning Protection Institute is still not a believer in the new system. He believes that the lightning rod systems work and his organization continues to certify companies to install lightning protection rods.
Carpenter’s son, Peter is not deterred by the criticism. He said his father designed the charge transfer system on the Appolo program when he was a child. Peter said, “It seemed odd to him that they were using technology that went back to Ben Franklin to protect men going to the moon.”
Ashley Automation & Technology began using Lightning Eliminator systems at their customer’s request and now the company recommends the system, according to Jones, project manager. He said private investors fund the majority of the oilfield expansion and they are more concerned with the risk that lightning strikes pose, than major oil companies have ever been. They want to protect gas processing units, oil drilling pads and other investments from lightning strikes.
He said, “They don’t want to lose their $5 million to a lightning strike. They see it (lightning protection) as an insurance policy.”