Clean energy: the safety risks

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The planned transition to cleaner sources of energy like hydrogen will help us reach our climate change goals, but the safety risks must not be overlooked.

With the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow, global attention on decarbonisation has rarely been greater.

At the same time, the UK’s commitment to 2050 net-zero emissions has given fresh impetus to the drive for cleaner energy over the past two years and, while the ultimate goal remains some way off, some recent milestones clearly indicate the direction – and pace – of travel.

At the beginning of the year, it was announced that annual electricity generated from renewable sources outstripped fossil fuels for the first time in 2020, providing 42 per cent of the UK’s electricity (see The Guardian, January 2021). We also saw the UK overtake France as the second largest market for electrified cars in Europe, behind Germany.

Annual electricity generated from renewable sources outstripped fossil fuels for the first time in 2020. Photograph: Dräger

But while the urgency around climate change and net zero accelerates and the rush for renewable and sustainable fuel sources intensifies, there is a steadily developing sense of urgency regarding another topic within this sector: safety.

To many, there is a perception that clean, renewable energy and environmental initiatives, such as carbon capture, are green, clean and therefore safe. However, in reality, many of the risks are just as significant as those involved in traditional practices. The main difference is that there is less awareness of the dangers involved.

This was evidenced by independent research commissioned by Dräger earlier this year which showed that there is a growing recognition within industry that safety standards in the UK’s clean and renewable energy sector need to keep pace with broader developments being seen in the sector’s current ‘goldrush’.

Safety concerns in the oil and gas sector

More than three in five (63 per cent) managers in the oil and gas industry who took part in the research indicated that there are concerns in their organisation about a major safety incident occurring in the next five years, while 83 per cent of managers across all sectors indicated concerns about emerging and evolving safety risks which they feel their business is still getting to grips with.

Paul Davidson: "Safety must catch up with broader progress in the UK’s renewables sector."

Clearly the oil and gas, renewables and utilities industries are at the forefront of the push to net zero. This goes some way to explaining the importance of reminding employees of the risks of major safety disasters in their industry. This was a sentiment expressed most strongly in our research by managers in the oil, gas, renewables and utilities industries (93 per cent compared to an average across all industries of 87 per cent), and why the same group also emphasised the importance of ensuring that safety knowledge is passed on to the next generation of workers, with 80 per cent of managers in oil, gas, renewables and utilities agreeing with this statement.

Such issues are particularly front of mind in the industry currently, given the significant maintenance backlog issues within offshore environments because of Covid-19 restrictions and spending cuts (see Offshore Engineer, January 2021).

Hydrogen hazards

But issues about evolving or emerging safety risks are by no means limited to the renewables industry. As we move ever closer to the more widespread use of greener fuels such as hydrogen, wider industry faces new challenges with gas safety. Some of hydrogen’s properties require additional engineering controls to ensure its safe use.

Specifically, hydrogen has a wide range of concentrations in the air at which it is flammable, ranging from a Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) of 4 per cent to an Upper Explosive Limit (UEL) of 74 per cent. (The LEL is the minimum concentration of a particular combustible gas or vapour necessary to support its combustion in air. The UEL is the maximum concentration of a gas or vapour that will burn in air, with anything above the UEL being ‘too rich’ to burn.) Hydrogen also has lower minimum ignition energy (0.019 mJ, i.e. millijoules) than gasoline or natural gas (methane has a flammable range of LEL 5 per cent – UEL 14.3 per cent). Together, these factors mean hydrogen can ignite more easily.

The ignition energy of flammable gases – such as petrol, methane, ethane, propane, butane and benzene – is in the order of 0.1 mJ, (Ayumi Kumamoto et al 2011). To put this into perspective, a static shock that you can feel would be in the order of 1 mJ!

Add to this the fact that hydrogen is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic and burns with a flame that is almost invisible to the naked eye, and it’s easy to see how the dangers are often underestimated.

Aside from the obvious vital lifesaving reasons that safety must catch up with broader progress in the UK’s renewables sector, there are other reasons for companies to pay attention to the concerns around the risk of a major incident.

Three-quarters of those involved in the research (75 per cent) think that businesses should invest more in safety equipment and training to avert a major safety incident, with – on average – 54 per cent of the responsibility for employee safety seen to rest with the employer as opposed to employee.

Furthermore, when it comes to staff retention, 90 per cent of those in the sector said that an employer’s safety record would impact on any decision to stay with a company long term, while three-quarters (75 per cent) said it would affect their decision to accept a job in the first place.

Safety is clearly, and understandably, a key concern – in the minds of both managers and the wider workforce – and is one which requires ongoing investment and focus, whether the industry is oil and gas, new and emerging industries (such as clean energy and carbon capture), or wider industry getting to grips with changing risk factors. With the eyes of the world on Glasgow in November, the UK has the opportunity to raise awareness and take the lead in ensuring that safety keeps pace with other developments in the sector, to the benefit of all involved.

Paul Davidson is Account manager at Dräger Marine and Offshore


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