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Protect people and planet

21 March 2023

While greener fuels – such as hydrogen – are seeing increasingly widespread use to protect our planet, we must also consider the risks and dangers of these new forms of energy. David Head says there is a pressing need to understand the risk to ensure worker safety.

THE ENERGY transition in the UK is gathering pace: 2022 saw a record volume of energy generated from renewable sources, with solar, wind, biomass and hydropower contributing 40% of all electricity produced. Although it is clear that this proportion of renewable energy supply will need to accelerate further if we are to achieve our National Net Zero targets and as a result of this we are seeing that there is a clear – and in many areas of new energy, rapid – direction of travel.

While progress is being made in the utilisation of renewable energy, there is a pressing need for greater understanding of the risks, and risk amelioration of new energy sources and applications, not least to build public confidence in the new technology as a safe and dependable energy source for the future.

At present, there is a sense of an ongoing and widespread misalignment between the perception of renewable energy and environmental initiatives as ‘green, clean and therefore safe’, and the reality, which is that in fact, the risks are often not dissimilar to those seen in legacy industries such as oil and gas. The key difference being that such sectors are often seen as dirty and dangerous, with the consequence being that safety is viewed as a crucial consideration, and is, as a result, mature and well-advanced in these industries.

So, while most people would agree that a move away from a carbon-based economy should be carried out as quickly as possible, this must not be at the expense of safety. Failure to consider adequately the safety elements within the renewables energy industry may well lead to setbacks which have the potential to harm the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet for future generations.

As such it is important that the workplace risks are fully understood, both where they are similar to traditional energy sector and where they differ.

Firstly, let us consider the similarities. These include confined spaces, fire hazards and exposure to toxic gases; risks which continue to be present in the renewable energy sector, often in a similar way to the oil and gas sector, regardless of it being seen as a clean and therefore safe form of energy and which will be familiar to health and safety professionals.

Where new energy technologies differ from the traditional oil and gas sector largely centres around improving our understanding of the unique risks imposed by the use of EV batteries and storage of carbon and other elements such as hydrogen. As an example, we’ll focus largely on hydrogen.

Hydrogen safety

The hydrogen economy is widely considered to be an essential part of the UK’s future energy independence and security, as well as our commitment to achieve Net Zero by 2050, so improving education and awareness of hydrogen safety will be critical for operators handling hydrogen equipment for storage and transportation and will require collaboration between industry and academia.

For this reason, we have been working with the University of Aberdeen for many years, both supporting their students’ understanding of the safety risks and also working to keep these same students safe when conducting research in the lab and when using gases such as hydrogen. We believe that collaboration of this kind is vitally important to support the development of safety strategies in industry, and transparent communication to the public to help establish a successful and safe hydrogen economy.

It is therefore crucial to recognise the safety hazards that accompany new technology. For example, when it comes to handling, storing and transporting hydrogen, safety protocols are critical, and the establishment of standardised and recognised safety standards is essential.

In parallel to developments in new energy sources, there are also advances being made in safety technology to secure the safety of employees and other assets. This is particularly relevant in hazardous environments where gases such as hydrogen are not only highly flammable but also colourless and odourless, posing an enhanced risk of fire or explosion.

In these situations, improvements in connectivity offer a number of key benefits, including live monitoring of gas levels such as hydrogen, with key information displayed in real time via a connected user interface. This digitalisation of safety systems means that alarms can be set, ventilation automatically activated and if required, emergency services can be granted access to the data which allows them to manage an emergency situation in the case of, for example, a hydrogen generated fire.

Gas detection 

Furthermore, businesses can add an extra layer of monitoring to a standard gas detection solution by using complementary sensor devices such as acoustic and flame detection. Doing so can safeguard valuable company and plant equipment and may also prevent a catastrophic fire or explosion.

Another advancement in safety technology that has been prompted by the use of new fuels such as hydrogen, is the implementation of acoustic gas detectors as a supplementary technology. These allow for the detection of gas leaks emanating from pressurised gas storage, particularly in outdoor or ventilated locations where conventional detectors may fail to pick up on leaks due to wind conditions, gas dilution, or leak directionality. These ultrasonic acoustic sensors respond earlier than traditional gas detectors by registering the sound of leaking gas, effectively ‘hearing’ the gas leak. In doing so, acoustic detectors don’t require or rely on any physical contact between the gas and the sensor, enabling coverage of a much wider area, and detecting leaks up to 20 metres away. Importantly, they are not gas-specific so can be used to detect leaks of any gas type.

Returning to the hydrogen example, these detectors can be particularly effective when it comes to hydrogen. Hydrogen molecules are around eight times smaller than methane molecules, which makes leaks are far more likely and because it burns with a flame that is almost invisible to the naked eye and is odourless, it is more difficult to detect. However, the use of acoustic detection of leaks greatly reduces the risk of explosion, minimises the financial cost of leaks and is particularly effective in settings where hydrogen is stored.

As far back as 2020, a report by trade union Prospect stated that in 2020 the rate of lost time to injuries in offshore renewables was four times as high as in offshore oil and gas, itself a high hazard industry.

Safety protocols 

It is notable that one of the key themes raised in the 2021 Safety at Work report published by Dräger around the topic, revealed concerns that safety protocols and regulations in the UK’s renewable energy sector were failing to keep pace with the broader speed of progress within the sector.

There are however some encouraging signs that as the renewable sector grows, it is beginning to recognise the fundamental importance of safety. Independent research carried in 2022 showed that 82 percent of the UK’s new and renewable energy sector workforce think safety has increased in importance within their business compared to the previous year.

The combination of greater awareness of safety issues, at the same time as improvements in technology which provide additional protection, should be at least partly encouraging for the wellbeing of those who operate in the renewables section. There is still much work to be done, however, in improving universal awareness of safety in the renewables and low carbon sector, understanding and mitigating these safety considerations and in establishing standardised safety protocols for renewable energy.

This is an area on which we continue to focus, working with those at the forefront of advances in the sector, such as academic specialists, to further enhance safety equipment and to keep pace with innovations in the renewable and low carbon industries, hereby supporting the process of the energy transition.

David Head is head of safety marketing at Draeger Safety UK. For more information, visit www.draeger.com