Today’s wind turbine industry is hitting stride as a leading provider of energy across the world, including the United States where renewable energy outperformed coal for the first time this year.
The evolution of safety within the wind industry has three phases:
- Pre-2012 when there were many industry firsts as it was just developing
- 2012 – 2016 when the industry began delivering performance
- 2017 – present as the industry earns status as major source of energy
Let’s look at each of these phases and then the future of safety in wind power.
Pre-2012 and “firsts”
Let’s start this era in 1992 when the Energy Policy Act provided a tax credit to emphasize focus on renewable energy, among many other mandates including alternative fuels for car fleets.
This era is marked by several trends, including the formation of the companies making up today’s wind industry through mergers, acquisitions and investment; a series of tax credits, grants and legislation to stimulate growth as well as research and development; and significant progress of the installed base. Installations in 2012 were more than 90 percent higher than the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Safety practices largely were adopted from other more established industries, including oil and gas, construction and telecommunications. While training was available, many of these were not wind specific so employers created their own safety training programs to mitigate risks and hazards. In many cases, this resulted in a high quality of safety and technical training from the wind industry’s largest employers. However, moves to create wind specific instruction reaching across the industry were slow to take off, and the result is a lack of consistency in training received. Employers would subsequently find themselves retraining recruits from the ground up to meet their own internal standards, even if the individual had pre-existing skills. Without mutual recognition between firms, this was the only choice to be sure a worker would be safe in a turbine hundreds of feet tall.
2012 – 2016 and performance
Due to the production tax credit and state and local policies, the wind turbine industry continued strong growth in the U.S. throughout this period. Of significance, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. was installed in 2016 and operates at Block Island, located off the coast of Rhode Island.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced in 2016 that wind turbine service technicians would be the fastest-growing career of the decade – further evidence of the growth.
Even with all the growth, wind capacity installed by the end of 2016 was estimated, in an average year, to equate to 6.4 percent of electricity demand, noted the Department of Energy. Meanwhile, wind was estimated to supply the equivalent of more than 40 percent of Denmark’s electricity demand, and between 20 and 35 percent of demand in Portugal, Ireland and Spain.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics maintained that there was “no one way to train a wind turbine technician". in Europe, a significant shift occurred regarding safety and training in 2012. Major manufacturers including GE Renewable Energy, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and Vestas, plus global leaders in wind power generation like Acciona Energia and Ørsted, recognized the need for change and came together to collaborate on standardized safety training. They formed Global Wind Organization (GWO) to focus on and create basic safety training standards on fundamentals: First aid, manual handling, fire awareness and working at heights – a major effort to collaborate as the industry continued to grow.
2017 – today and leadership
As noted, renewable energy surpassed coal. In addition, the wind capacity to come online in 2019 in the U.S. is the largest amount since 2012. Seventeen offshore wind turbine projects are in various stages of development in the U.S., according to the Business Network for Offshore Wind. What’s more, the U.S. wind industry now employs a record 114,000 men and women, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
The data from AWEA includes employees of the major manufacturers and owner-operators, and a growing base of contractors and graduates from technical schools who have completed courses specific to the wind industry.
Because of the mobile workforce, the business priority is on building the base of qualified technicians who can move from project to project – as well as from country to country. Standardization supported by a system of certification is one solution helping to give workers a path to achieving basic safety competencies, in a form that is recognizable to wind energy employers. An increasing amount of standardized training is becoming available in the U.S, and GWO training increased 35 percent during the first half of 2019. In addition to the core safety modules, basic technical training, enhanced first aid, advanced rescue and sea survival are among a growing menu of available standards that are being added to curriculums across North America.
A look ahead
As standardized safety training is implemented by manufacturers, wind farm owner-operators and contractors, we will see four benefits:
- Reduction of incidents and downtime because of agreement among employers and contractors on expectations for safety.
- Lower cost of overall training while building a more qualified and productive base of employees and / or contractors.
- Verification of certifications and improvements in the training / hiring process to focus on building a culture of safety and meeting the needs of the business.
- Alignment of talent on core safety competencies as the industry grows – from training providers all the way through manufacturers, owner-operators and contractors.
Those are the goals because safety is personal and without borders.