With all its faults, the European Parliament remains a great place for learning stuff. Last night I heard a guy who has spent decades in the oil and gas businesses, including a long period in the North Sea. And he made a point which had not really crossed my mind before.
He pointed out that the off-shore oil industry makes extensive use of helicopters to ferry personnel out to rigs. Why use expensive helicopters? Wouldn’t boats be cheaper? Our speaker reminded us that even in benign conditions, there’s generally quite a swell in the North Sea. The sheer physical problem of transferring people from a ship lurching up and down on the swell to a fixed oil platform is difficult and very dangerous. That’s a key reason for preferring helicopters.
But off-shore wind turbines, of course, don’t have helipads. And the cost of providing helipads for dozens or hundreds of turbines in an off-shore array would be prohibitive. So maintenance engineers perforce go by boat – and face the dangers of the transfer.
But how much maintenance do these turbines need? Answer: a lot. The Renewable Energy Foundation has done excellent work in highlighting the rapid decline in output over time from on-shore turbines, as wear and weather take their toll. In the harsh and corrosive off-shore environment, operators find that maintenance requirements (and costs) frequently exceed their expectations. On a large off-shore array, you can reckon that maintenance is a pretty continuous process.
What happens if an engineer is safely landed on an off-shore turbine, but the weather deteriorates as he’s working, so that he can’t be picked up? Does he have shelter? A loo? Food, water, a bed?
Mercifully the level of fatalities in the UK industry has been low – though one life lost is too many. The HSE report lists “slips and falls” as the primary cause of accidents. There are quite separate concerns about fatalities amongst divers. But with extravagant plans for further investment (or for “investment”, read “misallocation of resources”) in off-shore wind, I fear the numbers will rise. All credit to the engineers (and divers) who risk their lives in the offshore industry. They deserve every penny they earn. But if we built more gas and less wind, lives would be saved (and the competitiveness of our economy protected).