Why accident and safety data is hard to come by for the wind industry

Ted Sickinger / Oregonlive.com (TNS)

Accident and safety data is difficult to obtain for the wind industry.

There is no national incident database. The owners do not publish them. Sellers are reluctant to talk about it. And reporting rules vary by state and even county.

As a result, it is impossible to quantify the frequency of blade failures, although news reports have identified them in virtually every state with significant wind farms.

DNV Energy, a Norway-based industry consulting group, said in a statement that blade throws like what happened at Portland General Electric’s Biglow Canyon are rare and can be avoided through manufacturing and construction practices. carefully and through regular maintenance.

With 350,000 wind turbines installed worldwide, he says he is not aware of any injuries to the general public from collapsing wind turbine towers or blade debris.

The US Department of Energy, meanwhile, said blade jets are “virtually non-existent” on modern turbines due to better engineering and the use of sensors. “Although this type of failure was a concern in the early years of the wind industry, modern wind turbines are reliable, safe and state-of-the-art power plants with hundreds of thousands of hours of operation,” the agency said on its website.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reached out to a dozen states with the nation’s largest wind fleets, finding a hodgepodge of security incident records.

Half required some level of accident reporting. Iowa if it results in a death. New Mexico if there are fires. And Minnesota, North Dakota and New Mexico for extraordinary events – fires, tower collapse, blades thrown, injuries – although these states do not collect these reports in a single database, but in reports of compliance filed by individual companies that are not easily searchable. .

The Energy Facility Siting Council of Oregon requires wind farm operators to prevent structural failures in the tower or blades that could endanger public safety. Operators are also required to report incidents that may affect public health and safety within 72 hours.

But those rules only apply to 13 of the largest state-licensed wind facilities, not those that fall below a lower power generation threshold and are licensed by counties.

Counties do not uniformly require similar reporting, if at all, so there is no record of equipment failures or safety incidents at small wind farms, which account for half of the 2,300 wind turbines distributed over a swath of northeast and eastern Oregon.

Although the Department of Energy maintains records of public safety and other incidents reported at the wind farms it regulates, they are not comprehensive. The agency provided a compiled spreadsheet to The Oregonian/OregonLive that lists 41 reported incidents dating back to 2011.

Biglow Canyon in Sherman County is the only state-regulated wind farm to report complete blade separation during this time. But the list included other related incidents, including two 2020 lightning-damaged blades at the Montague Wind Farm in Gilliam County; turbine fires at Shepherd’s Flat, which is in Gilliam and Morrow counties, and Leaning Juniper IIA in Gilliam County; as well as a slew of transformer failures – most at Biglow Canyon.

The list does not include two blade failures in 2008 and 2009 at the Stateline Wind Farm that are referenced in past compliance reports submitted to the state. It also does not include the most serious incident, a 2007 turbine collapse at the Klondike III wind farm that killed one worker and injured another.

That doesn’t mean project owner Avangrid didn’t report the fatal incident – and in fact it was widely publicized and the machine manufacturer was fined by workplace safety authorities. .

But the Department of Energy “could find no record” of the incident in its records, said Jennifer Kalez, a spokeswoman. “The Oregon Department of Energy’s compliance program is simply more robust than before.”

Sarah Esterson, senior policy adviser with the Sites Division, said the state has added compliance staff and worked with an outside consultant to develop more rigorous public safety reporting requirements in recent years. This came in response to the growing number and larger physical size of facilities under its jurisdiction, as well as public concerns about their impacts, she said.

The Golden Hills Wind Farm permit in Sherman County, which became operational this year, for example, includes much more prescriptive reporting conditions for its operator. It requires Avangrid to maintain detailed inspection records for each turbine, identify equipment failures and provide a summary report each year that identifies structural issues and incidents.

Similar reporting requirements will likely apply to all new wind farms and those re-powering their turbines in the future, Esterson said.

The ministry wants to ensure “that the conditions are written in such a way that we get the information we need to closely assess whether the wind turbines are operating safely,” she said.

However, these new terms cannot legally be applied retroactively to older wind farms or those outside of state jurisdiction, said Todd Cornett, deputy director of the Department of State’s siting division. Energy. And that leaves the agency dependent on self-reporting of potential security risks by those operators or members or the public.

“The only realistic way to be able to assess them is to report them to us,” he said.