The Dangers of Energy Generation

It was a bit astounding. Somehow, despite the massive tsunami that hit Japan’s Kamisu offshore wind farm 11 March 2011, its seven turbines emerged intact. While the crushing wave wrecked almost everything in its path, the turbines stood tall and continued to generate power. Meanwhile, the world watched nervously as workers struggled to prevent a catastrophic meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, site of explosions and radiation leaks. Despite its redundant safety systems and sturdy cement and steel layering, the nuclear plant’s systems ultimatley failed. Yet the wind farm, exposed and buffeted by the earthquake’s full force and the subsequent tsunami, survived.

To the layman, the survival of the wind turbines seems near miraculous, but engineers and developers say the Subaru-manufactured structures simply did what they were built to do. Part of it is basic physics. “If you think about it, when it comes to a tsunami, it’s hard to get much better than a wind turbine for a source of energy production that will survive the event,” said Mark Rodgers, communications director for Cape Wind, a 130 turbine project in planning off the U.S.’ New England coast. “Its smooth, cylindrical steel tower allows the water to easily slide past and around it, deflecting most of the force of the oncoming surge of water — and if it’s an offshore wind turbine so much the better because it is already designed for salt water exposure.”

In addition, the turbines are manufactured to take some significant roughing up from the elements and movement of the earth beneath them. ‘They are designed to withstand shaking of the ground to some extent. They are resilient and they can bend and sway and not topple,’ adds Saifur Rahman, a fellow at the US-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a professor of electrical engineering at Virginia Tech.

Indeed, wind’s good showing was not confined to Kamisu, located in the Ibaraki region of Japan. None of the nation’s wind turbines, representing over 2300 MW of capacity, failed as a result of the disaster, according to the Japan Wind Power Association.

‘It is just the nature of the technology that it is more adaptable,’ explains John Kourtoff, president and CEO Trillium Power Wind, which is developing a 420 MW project on Lake Ontario. ‘A nuclear facility is not used to having any forces on it. A nuclear facility is supposed to sit there and not be disturbed,’ he added.

To renewable energy supporters the turbines’ survival speaks of a larger and sometimes ignored benefit of both wind and solar power: they are safer because they use no explosve materials or radioactive elements. ‘We don’t have natural gas. We don’t have spent nuclear fuel. We don’t have oil. In most cases when there is a natural disaster, it is the fuel that causes the problem,’ said Mike Hall, CEO of California’s Borrego Solar.

All forms of generation carry some danger, or at the very least unexpected inconvenience in a natural disaster. Hydroelectric dams can flood in heavy downpours. Transformers may burst into flame from lightening strikes. Coal can freeze when temperatures drop, making it difficult to transport or burn. And natural gas may combust under various conditions. In fact, during Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake, it was eruptions from natural gas pipelines, not the earthquake, that proved to be the most deadly outcome, according to IEEE’s Rahman.

Remarkably, the Kamisu wind farm on the coast of Japan survived the massive earthquake and tsunami (Source: Skyseeker)

Japan is not alone in facing recent energy-related disasters. The past year has been a particularly tough one for conventional fuels in the United States, said Dan Shugar, CEO of Solaria, a California-based solar photovoltaic module manufacturer. Every major form of fossil fuel energy has caused some form of serious calamity. ‘We had the Massey coal mine one year ago (an explosion that killed 29 workers in West Virginia). We had Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — that was oil. In California we had a gas explosion,’ says Shugar, who lives near the San Bruno, California neighbourhood where more than 50 houses were destroyed and six people were killed when gas from an underground pipeline exploded in September.

Toppling Windmills

That’s not to say wind and solar energy are mishap free. Those who have heard turbines fall say it sounds like a deafening explosion when the massive structures hit the ground. But renewable energy supporters point out that a falling wind turbine, while loud, causes far less harm or danger to humans than destruction of a conventional power plant. For one thing, wind farms tend to be built on large swaths of land or out to sea, far from human structures.

‘The tower will not go anywhere. If it falls it will fall on its side. And typically the wind turbines are in large parks away from where anybody lives. The blade is heavy so if it breaks loose, it will not go very far. It will not damage a residential neighborhood,’ said Rahman.

Second, it is relatively rare for wind turbines to collapse. In fact, when one snapped in 2009 at the 20 turbine Fenner Wind Farm in upstate New York, owner Enel North America initially could find no similar event to study as it tried to uncover the cause. The 100 metre tall 1.5 MW GE machine, a decade old at the time, landed in a field far from any roads or residences, according to Enel. Still, such accidents periodically make the news. For example, a rotor and blades fell from one tower at a 150 turbine wind farm near Rugby, North Dakota in March. Iberdrola reported to state officials that the turbine, manufactured by Suzlon, suffered a rotor assembly failure. In Scotland, last year a blade fell from a Siemen’s turbine at the 322 MW Whitelee wind fam, another Ibedrola-owned facility.

For solar, a panel loosened in a severe wind storm might turn into a projectile, but its danger, too, is limited and quick. It could hurt a nearby car, structure or a person, but that is the end of the destruction. More than wind, snow has become a worry for the solar industry, according to Hall. Installers have become increasingly cognisant of the dangers of panel weight after many roofs collapsed in Massachusetts following record-breaking snow fall over the last winter. While most of these collapsed roofs did not have solar, the panels inevitably do add weight to the roof structure, and so could potentially increase the likelihood of collapse if they are not engineered properly, he said.

‘The industry has gotten more sophisticated in its approach to safety generally, which includes roof loading. Our team does more sophisticated calculations than it did five years ago to be sure a roof can handle solar. You need to design not just for normal snow but for crazy amounts of snow,’ Hall said. He added: ‘But these things can all be engineered around. And it is a much easier engineering problem than figuring out what to do with spent nuclear fuel or figuring out what to do about natural gas lines’.

Moreover, costs are far smaller from a solar or wind failure than they are when conventional energy meets disaster. For example, some analysts estimate that decommissioning costs alone will run US$10-12 billion at Fukushima. That is only the start; liability costs and replacement fuel are expected to add billions more.

‘If you lose your [wind] turbine it is bad for your company and it has financial implications. But it is a relatively isolated impact. That is different from what we see with Fukushima. It is orders of magnitude greater than what happens if there is an errant wind turbine,’ said Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Who’s Reliable Now?

Given the dangers of combustible fuels, thermal plants need to be quickly shut down in a natural disaster. Indeed, Japan disabled some 10 GW of thermal capacity immediately after the disaster to ensure safety, according to Nomura Equity Research, a subsidiary of Asian-based Nomura Holding. These thermal shutdowns, combined with the loss of 9.7 GW of nuclear units, left Japan with a shortage of power, a problem expected to continue for some time.

Nomura says rolling blackouts are likely this summer, in particular, as demand rises and northern Japan struggles to rebuild. While the thermal units can be restored relatively quickly, most by the end of the year, the nuclear units may never operate again, say Nomura analysts. This loss will hit Japan hard because it is heavily reliant on nuclear power, which represents about one third of the country’s electric needs. Now a large wedge of supply might be gone for good.

Fossil generators offer the quickest and most likely way to replace the lost nuclear power in the short-term. Nomura expects oil fired-plants to make up 55% of the deficit, gas 30% and coal 15%. But for the long-term Japan’s government says it will look to renewables to serve as a pillar in energy planning. Renewable energy supporters say this will make Japan’s energy supply more nimble, with greater robustness and reliability when natural disasters occur.

Given that most solar panels or wind turbines function as small, stand-alone units, if one fails it has little impact on the larger grid. If a wind turbine falls, for example, other turbines at the wind farm remain intact and capable of producing power. Rooftop solar PV failure affects only the house or building it sits upon.

When solar-equipped houses are swept away in a tsunami, they do not cause intact houses to lose electricity. As distributed generation, solar PV not only distributes benefits, but also risk. ‘You have built in redundancy with renewable energy which you don’t have with large centralised facilities,’ said Kourtoff.

And both wind and solar lack the risk of long-term fuel interruption from war or politics. ‘You are taking advantage of a resource that is fairly bankable. Barring a natural disaster that the sun no longer shines, a solar unit in almost any situation is still going to generate the day after the earthquake, the day after the hurricane, the day after the tornado,’ said Tim Keating, vice president of marketing at CPV company Skyline Solar.

Will Fukushima Change Energy?

The Fukushima accident again raises questions about nuclear safety, particularly at older plants. More than 34% of installed nuclear capacity was built before 1980, according to HSBC Global Research. Fukushima itself is 40 years old.

But age does not necessarily mean greater danger, according to Tim Tonyan, vice president and group manager at structural engineers CTL group. ‘Many of those structures can perform far beyond 40 years. But they do need to be evaluated and assessed. In many cases repairs can be done to maintain the facility at its full service capability,’ he said.

Tonyan added, ‘Overall, the power industry has had quite a remarkable record in terms of safety and performance. The tragedy in Japan was something admittedly not anticipated by the codes that were in place at the time. This is the way you improve on codes. You take a look at what happened. Now we can develop improved codes and standards that will make these plants even safer’.

Safety is, of course, only one element in energy planning. The portfolio mix selected for any grid or region depends on many other factors, including reliability, cost, environmental impact and access to fuels. Still, HSBC says it sees the nuclear renaissance slowing as a result of Fukushima, and the power industry continuing its preference for natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency.

‘It is too early to judge the geo-political/energy policy impact of a potential nuclear disaster in Japan, particularly at a time when the Middle Eastern crisis is refocusing governments’ attention on energy security. But it is not unreasonable to expect the focus to switch towards safe, proven, secure and low-carbon forms of energy generation — renewables and gas — as well as measures to reduce demand through building regulations and transport efficiency standards,’ said HSBC in a recent Climate Investment Update.

For now the Fukushima repair and clean up continues, the wind mills keep spinning and the world waits to see what’s next for energy.



Safety Fears See Town Take Over Grid Ops

Ursula Sladek was neither political nor concerned about the environment. Trained as a school teacher, she knew nothing about electricity 25 years ago except that it comes from a socket. She had never heard of heady concepts such as ‘electricity democratisation’ and her hands shook uncontrollably if called upon to speak publicly.

But for the mother of five energy safety became more than abstract following the Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine. She tried to convince the grid operator in her town, Schonau, Germany, to stop supporting nuclear power.

When the grid operator failed to heed her call, Sladek began an unprecedented campaign to put control of the grid in the hands of the community of 1100 people. It took many years, political referendums, massive fundraising and a lot of learning, but today Schonau Power Supply not only runs the town grid, but also supplies decentralised energy and combined heat and power to more than 100,000 customers throughout Germany, including large industrials. Sladek manages the hybrid non-profit/profit cooperative.

‘Our shareholders want to make a change in the [power industry’s] structure, from centralised to decentralised. They want the power we use to change from nuclear to renewables and cogneration, and they want normal citizens to take part in that,’ said Sladek.

Sladek believes that the Fukushima incident is invigorating community interest in power plant safety worldwide and strengthening support for distributed generation. She sees it happening in her own backyard: Since the tsunami in Japan, her company has been adding 400 new customers per day.

Increased citizen involvement and understanding is more important now than ever before, she said, as plans to build transmission for wind power come under attack. ‘Develop the plans together with the citizens and they will say yes to many things,’ Sladek said.

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