Safety in the renewables sector
15 September 2021
As preparations ramp up for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow later this year, global attention on renewable energy has rarely been greater. At the same time, the UK’s commitment to 2050 Net Zero emissions has given fresh emphasis to the drive for cleaner energy over the past two years and, whilst the ultimate goal remains some way off, some recent milestones clearly indicate the direction – and pace – of travel.
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There can be a perception that renewable energy is clean and therefore safe, however schemes such as the carbon capture and storage project at Drax Power Station (pictured) involve risks not too dissimilar to those of the oil and gas sector due to the storage and transport of high volumes of gas – Image: Shutterstock.
At the beginning of the year, it was announced that annual electricity generation from renewable sources outstripped fossil fuels for the first time in 2020, providing 42% of the UK’s electricity (The Guardian, January 2021).
At the same time, work has begun to develop the largest offshore wind farm in Scotland which, once complete, will generate enough electricity to power a million homes, furthering the UK’s ambition to deliver 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. (Seagreen Wind Energy, June 2020).
But whilst the urgency around climate change targets and Net Zero is accelerating and the rush for renewable fuel sources is intensifing, there is a steadily developing sense of urgency regarding another topic within renewables: safety.
To many, there is a perception that clean, renewable energy and environmental initiatives, such as carbon capture, are green, clean, and therefore safe. However, in reality, many of the risks are as just as significant as those involved in the oil and gas sectors.
Dräger recently commissioned independent research which showed that there is a growing recognition within the industry itself that safety standards in the UK’s clean and renewable energy sector need to keep pace with broader developments being seen in the sector’s current ‘goldrush’.
More than three in five (63%) managers in the oil, gas and renewables sectors who took part in the research indicated that there are concerns in their organisation about a major safety incident occurring in the next five years, while 83% indicated concerns about emerging and evolving safety risks which they feel the sector is still getting to grips with.
If we consider some typical examples of safety risks in the clean energy sector, significant elements of work within the wind energy sector take place in offshore environments. Workers are exposed to risks from electrical motors and gears, and these hazards are compounded by the fact that some turbine designs present additional safety complications associated with confined spaces. In these situations, potential harmful gas builds up and therefore pre-entry gas detection checks are vital to ensure that oxygen levels are adequate and that any hazardous gases that may have gathered are identified.
The carbon capture and hydrogen industries also come with their own safety risks – the storage and transport of high volumes of gas. For example, exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can cause a variety of adverse health effects; headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing and ultimately asphyxia, whereas high levels of hydrogen pose fire and explosion risks, as well as the danger of asphyxiation.
In addition, there is the likely re-purposing of decommissioned oil rig platforms for use within the UK’s carbon capture and storage programme to consider. Whilst the purpose of the rig operation will be different, the operational hazards are much the same as those commonly faced on legacy oil rig operations: large numbers of people on a very remote platform in a harsh North Sea environment, with high volumes of hazardous gases. The gases might be different – hydrogen and carbon dioxide as opposed to methane – and they may be being pumped into the ground rather being extracted out of it, but the potential for a serious incident is much the same.
Whilst concerns about a major safety incident are by no means limited to the renewables industry, the potential gravity of such incidents in oil, gas and renewable environments, combined with the fact that many can recall the grave nature of previous major incidents such as Piper Alpha, perhaps account for why such incidents are more front of mind for those working in these sectors.
This could also explain the fact that the importance of reminding employees of the risks of major safety disasters in their industry was a sentiment expressed most strongly in our research by managers in the oil, gas, renewables and utilities industries (93% compared to an average across all industries of 87%), and why the same group also emphasises the importance of ensuring that safety knowledge is passed on to the next generation of workers, with 80% of managers in oil, gas, renewables and utilities agreeing with this statement. Such issues are particularly front of mind in the industry currently, given the significant maintenance backlog issues within offshore environments because of Covid-19 restrictions and spending cuts (Offshore Engineer, January 2021).
Paul Davidson, Dräger Marine and Offshore
Aside from the obvious vital lifesaving reasons that safety must catch up with broader progress in the UK’s renewables sector, there are other reasons for companies to pay attention to the concerns around the risk of a major incident.
Three quarters of those involved in the research (75%) think that businesses should invest more in safety equipment and training to avert a major safety incident, with – on average – 54% of the responsibility for employee safety seen to rest with the employer as opposed to employee.
Furthermore, when it comes to staff retention, 90% of those in the sector said that an employer’s safety record would impact any decision to stay with a company long term, while three quarters (75%) said it would affect their decision to accept a job in the first place.
Safety is clearly, and understandably, a key concern – in the minds of both managers and the wider workforce – and is one which requires ongoing investment and focus, whether the industry is oil and gas, or a new and emerging industries such as clean energy and carbon capture. With the eyes of the world on Glasgow in November, the UK has the opportunity to raise awareness and take the lead in ensuring that safety keeps pace with other developments in the sector, to the benefit of all involved.
The full report is available to download at: draegersafetyatwork.blog
About the author:
Paul Davidson has been an Account Manager at Aberdeen-based Dräger Marine and Offshore for the past two years but his experience of the oil and gas sector spans more than a decade. His expertise in safety lies primarily in gas detection, rescue equipment and breathing apparatus, as well as instrumentation and renewables. He’s also a member of the Decommissioning North Sea Leadership Group and sits on the Group’s market intelligence steering group.