At the end of 2020, there was a total of 35GW of global offshore wind installed, with very few bumps in the road. Political hurdles aside, the renewables industry has not yet faced a major operational crisis.
According to data collated by the G+ Global Offshore Wind Health and Safety Organisation, a global health and safety organisation for the offshore wind industry run in partnership with the Energy Institute, there were 743 incidents in 2021. So wind operations themselves are less risky, but risks are still present.
A significant amount of work goes into selecting a site for an offshore wind farm, including an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) with geophysical, ecological, marine mammal and bird survey results, stakeholder consultation and finalising the consenting process. The process is like oil and gas, requiring the same surveys using the same contractors.
Wind developers often consider a 'worst-case' associated with the construction process parameters itself, such as:
- piling duration
- water depth
- number of turbines and platforms
- foundation types
- number of piles and pile diameter
- concurrent events, and
- unexploded ordnance.
The 'Rochdale Envelope' approach allows meaningful EIAs to take place by defining a 'realistic worst case' scenario on the environmental impacts of a project. But does this consider the consequences of what could go wrong, really wrong?
Offshore wind farms are uncrewed, whereas oil and gas platforms, refineries and vessels are typically highly crewed. An offshore wind farm has large rotating turbines, plus the risk of an overheating gearbox or possible fire. In contrast, a drilling platform has highly flammable/ explosive and toxic products and many moving parts. So, you could say that offshore wind operations are safer. The 2020 incident rates, however, do show that there are still risks, and this is not just to people but also to the environment.
Placing offshore wind turbines in busy shipping lanes has a collision risk. Weather conditions can affect operational and maintenance activities. Innovation is required to keep costs low, and operators need to prove technology works in challenging conditions, such as floating turbines.
Positioning and placement of turbines must consider the environmental factors. However, with no associated risk of a large crude oil spill, perhaps the consequences are minor, and the operational crisis severity is not so apparent.