Accidents happen, but wind is still safe


January 9, 2015

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No sooner had new year hangovers cleared than UK wind faced another headache.

On 2 January, one of eight Nordex turbines at DW Consulting’s 20MW Screggagh wind farm in Northern Ireland collapsed in medium speeds. This is just one turbine at just one project, but it was fuel to cynics who love to deride wind. Yet again we hear wind is full of subsidy-sucking monsters whose main aim is to kill birds.

Thankfully, nobody was hurt and DW has responded as it should, by closing the project until it and Nordex have worked out why the turbine collapsed. It could even re-start the project today.

Mechanical failure is the most likely cause, but it could also have been caused by somebody tampering with the turbine, as has happened in at least one previous incident. We don’t yet know.

Wind businesses will surely face more questions about whether every turbine is a potential death trap that could fall over with no notice. With this in mind, it is up to everyone in the sector to remind the general public of two points.

The first is that such accidents are very rare; and the second is that wind is still far safer than most energy sources.

It is this second point that we want to pick up on. Yes, turbines will sometimes collapse, just as buildings sometimes collapse. This will continue to be the case regardless of how advanced technology gets, because turbines will always have to contend with gravity.

But the effect of a collapsed turbine is largely gone when the machine hits the ground. This is mainly contained to the people who developed the wind farm, who have to tidy up the mess and get back to business; and the manufacturer, who have to work out what went wrong and address it in order to protect their reputation.

It does not have the same wide-ranging effects that come from problems in other energy sectors.

Let’s look at some disasters that are much larger. The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the US and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan have both had long-lasting effects on the environment and communities around them. While the Screggagh collapse is not in the same league as either of these disasters, we can at least see that wind is better for the environment even when things go wrong.

We also need to accept that wind does not have the same attitude to death as other sectors. Deaths in the coal industry, particularly in emerging markets, are still routine; and that is not to mention the impact on health of the pollution from coal-fired power stations.

Of course, wind must do all it can to reduce the risk of death and injury to workers and the public, through steps including more advanced technology and better maintenance. But we should also not forget how well wind already stacks up compared to its rivals.

No part of the energy sector is 100% problem-free or 100% safe, because no part of life is 100% problem-free or 100% safe. Wind must address the risks posed by its projects, as it does, but we will never get to a situation where nothing ever goes wrong.

Only a wind sceptic would insist on such an unrealistic aim.

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