In the wake of a significant number of accidents during storms, the Japanese government is in the process of introducing regulations requiring improved maintenance for wind turbines. The United Kingdom will probably have to consider something similar, partly for reasons of public safety and also to protect what are in effect public assets from owners keen to maximize profits rather than longevity.
On the 22nd of March 2016 the Electric Power Safety Subcommittee in Japan’s Ministry of Economics Trade and Industry (METI) met to discuss, amongst other things, the safety record of Japan’s 2,700 MW of larger onshore wind turbines, a fleet that comprises about 2,000 machines at 460 sites, a relatively small fleet by European standards. The minutes are as yet unpublished, but the committee papers and agenda are available, and the probable conclusions and actions are inferable from those papers, and other information, are already being reported in the Japanese press, notably the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (22.03.16).
Since 2005 the number of incidents involving wind turbines, mostly owned by small firms or individuals rather than large utilities, has hovered around 50 per year, which represents a decreasing rate given a rising capacity, but is still in absolute terms sufficient to suggest that better regulation may be necessary for reasons of public safety. The accidents are mostly gross mechanical problems such as blade loss, but include one instance of non-fatal electrocution. Importantly, whilst incidents affecting machines owned by large utilities have been declining in number, suggesting improved maintenance and safety procedures, those with private owners have not and may even be increasing. Of the 52 incidents in 2014, 51 affected privately owned wind farms.
METI’s response is to propose a significant strengthening of the safety testing regime, and it seems that from 2017 wind turbine operators must submit to a safety inspection every three years by a private company reporting to METI itself. The scope of the inspection is very broad, with the general intention of ensuring that the machines are secure during Japan’s typhoon season, which brings very strong winds and a relatively high probability of lightning strikes. Wind turbine generators that are willing to install remote monitoring permitting METI’s inspectors to make checks via the internet may not be required to submit to onsite inspection at such frequent intervals.
By contrast, and simultaneously, the safety regulations on thermal plant will probably be relaxed in the light of a stable and satisfactory incident record, with the inspection schedule being increased from 6 to 8 year intervals.
While some allowance must be made for the fact that Japan is particularly safety-conscious in relation to electric power generation at present, and that Japan’s typhoons are powerful storms by any standards, this tightening of wind turbine standards raises a number of interesting questions concerning the safety standards of the wind fleet in the UK, particularly that in Scotland which is continuing to grow in spite of the Westminster government’s ebbing enthusiasm.
The UK government does not collect and publish safety data similar to that obtained and released by METI, though any reader of the press will be aware that there are numerous reports of failures and incidents from minor to major. That is hardly surprising, given the UK’s much larger wind fleet, just under 9,000 MW, about 4,500 machines, but this fact only makes it even more striking that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has not undertaken any comprehensive monitoring.
It is important, however, to keep this in proportion. The risk to general public safety though real must be accounted moderate even during Japanese typhoons, though obviously the risk to those living very close to the sites might be higher. Consequently, perhaps the most interesting implication of this new regulatory scheme is that it confirms suspicions that the extremely rapid deployment of wind power around the world was technologically premature and has resulted in unexpectedly high Operations and Maintenance costs, stretching the budgets of all operators and particularly smaller private firms, as can be inferred from the Japanese data.
This is of importance in the UK since the government’s current position is to close subsidies for new wind farms of large size, but continue support to support installation of smaller scale developments under the Feed-in Tariff, where these can obtain local support. Since these schemes could total as much as 5 MW, these could still be very large wind turbines of over 100 metres. Typically such schemes will not be large-scale utility projects, but developed, owned, and operated by smaller companies, sometimes with substantial community investment. Furthermore, and crucially, there appears to be a trend for utilities to offload their ageing windfarms to non-utility investment vehicles, and while the utilities tend to remain involved in the operation, there must be concern as to whether the new investors will be as scrupulous in maintenance as the former owners would have been.
Since the rapid installation of wind power is an experiment, funded by the electricity consumer, it is important that, as well as electricity, all relevant information from these projects flows back into the public domain; otherwise, nothing will be learned and the subsidy largely wasted. The Japanese lead on this point is clear: transparent incident and accident information is certainly required in the UK, and in the light of that data it may be necessary to require better safety regulation, and not only for reasons of safety. These are in effect public assets, constructed on the basis of expected income support subsidies, and private owners should, arguably, be under some compulsion to use that subsidized income to maintain them in the public interest rather than maximizing profit through low maintenance resulting in a short lifetime.