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Safety in the UK’s renewable energy sector

Author : David Head, Draeger Safety UK

16 May 2023

There is little doubt that the UK is keen to lead the field as the world looks towards a global energy transition. The UK has the largest offshore wind market in Europe, providing 42% of Europe's operating fleet, and ‘Hornsea One’, located off the Yorkshire coast, is believed to be the world’s largest offshore wind farm with a total capacity of 1.2gw; enough energy to power more than a million UK homes.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

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The UK has also been an early adopter of carbon capture and storage, and the production of blue hydrogen. While, at the same time, the UK’s mature wind market has also opened the door for green hydrogen prototypes to further support the burgeoning hydrogen economy.

The hydrogen economy is widely considered to be an essential part of the UK’s future energy independence and security, as well as its commitment to achieve net zero by 2050.

From transportation to heating, it is expected that hydrogen is likely to play a major role in the energy mix of the UK’s bid to decarbonise its economy. The last few years have seen organisations in both the public and private sectors take their first steps into the emerging hydrogen economy; there have been programmes to convert buses and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to hydrogen power; and also advances in hydrogen technology within the maritime, rail and air sectors.

However, whilst progress continues, the issue of safety related to hydrogen could do with a boost – both to reduce risk exposure through better understanding and risk amelioration and to build public confidence in the new technology as a safe and dependable energy source for the future.

While most people would agree that a move away from a carbon-based economy should be carried out as quickly as possible, this must not be at the expense of safety. Failure to consider adequately the safety elements within the renewables energy industry – particularly in the rush to achieve Net Zero – may well lead to setbacks which have the potential to harm the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet for future generations.

It is therefore crucial to recognise that with new technology comes new safety hazards. For example, when it comes to handling, storing and transporting hydrogen, safety protocols are critical, and the establishment of standardised and recognised safety standards is vital.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

It is notable that one of the key themes raised in a 2021 research report published by Drager around the topic revealed concerns that safety protocols and regulations in the UK’s renewable energy sector were failing to keep pace with the broader speed of progress within the sector.

Adding to the issue is a widespread misalignment between the perception of renewable energy and environmental initiatives as ‘green, clean and therefore safe’, when the reality is in fact that the risks are often not dissimilar to those seen in legacy industries such as oil and gas. The key difference being that such sectors are often seen as dirty and dangerous, with the consequence being that safety is viewed as a crucial consideration, and is, as a result, mature and well-advanced in such industries.

As far back as 2020, a report by trade union Prospect stated that in 2020 the rate of lost time to injuries in offshore renewables was four times as high as in offshore oil and gas, itself a high hazard industry.

Has enough changed three years on?

There are some encouraging signs as the renewable sector grows, that it is recognising the fundamental importance of safety and our 2022 research showed that 82 percent of the UK’s new and renewable energy sector workforce think safety has increased in importance within their business compared to the previous year.

At the same time, safety technology is continually evolving to secure the safety of both employees as well as plant assets, particularly in the sometimes highly hazardous environments seen in the renewables sector, where gases such as hydrogen are not only highly flammable but also colourless and odourless, posing an enhanced risk of fire or explosion.

David Head, Draeger Safety UK
David Head, Draeger Safety UK

In these situations, businesses can add an additional layer of monitoring to a standard gas detection solution by using complementary sensory devices such as acoustic and flame detection. Doing so can safeguard valuable company equipment and other plant assets and may also prevent a catastrophic fire or explosion. This in turn reduces the overall risk to employee’s wellbeing.

In the example of acoustic gas detectors, these allow for the detection of gas leaks emanating from pressurised gas storage, particularly in outdoor or ventilated locations where conventional detectors may fail to pick up on leaks due to wind conditions, gas dilution, or leak directionality. These ultrasonic acoustic sensors respond earlier than traditional gas detectors by registering the sound of leaking gas, effectively ‘hearing’ the gas leak. In doing so, acoustic detectors don’t require or rely on any physical contact between the gas and the sensor, enabling coverage of a much wider area, and detecting leaks up to 20 metres away. Importantly, they are not gas specific so can be used to detect leaks of any gas type.

Returning to the hydrogen example, these detectors can be particularly effective when it comes to this gas, due to the fact that hydrogen burns with a flame that is almost invisible to the naked eye and use of acoustic detection of leaks mitigates the risk of explosion and is particularly effective in settings where hydrogen is stored.

The combination of greater awareness of safety issues, the sometimes new and enhanced risks, at the same time as improvements in technology which provide additional protection, should be at least partly encouraging for the wellbeing of those who operate in the renewables section. There is still much work to be done, however, both in improving universal awareness of safety in the renewables and low carbon sector and in understanding these safety considerations.

About the author:

David Head is Head of Safety Marketing at international safety technology leader Draeger Safety UK and has spent over 16 years in the safety sector. He is responsible for the company’s wide range of safety equipment and training, from portable breathing apparatus and gas detection systems to drug and alcohol testing. He also sits on the company’s Commercial Leadership Team.

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