The Energy Transition; why safety matters
By Megan Hine, Safe Energy Transition Business Development Manager, Draeger Safety UK
Megan Hine is Safe Energy Transition Business Development Manager at Draeger Safety UK, the global safety and medical technology leader. Responsible for driving awareness of safety within the energy transition, and supporting customers in this sector, Megan has a wealth of experience working with UK industry, including the oil and gas sector. Passionate about ensuring safety keeps pace within the UK’s energy transition, she is a frequent speaker on the topic.
Despite occasional uncertainty over the future of the UK’s energy transition, the UK’s push towards Net Zero is gathering increasing pace as we look forwards 2050. Figures released for the first quarter of 2023 show that renewable energy generation reached nearly half of all UK energy production (47%), with installed capacity increasing by 5.1% for the same quarter, mostly wind and solar PV . Regardless of policy, we believe that clean energy production will continue to gather pace.
As we see advancement in the sector as a whole, it is also important to ensure that safety within the renewable energy sector keeps pace with this progress, and that safety strategies are developed alongside the technological transformation in the energy industry.
In addition to the need to protect the safety and health of those working in the sector, it’s a vital component to building and maintaining public confidence in the new energy industry, to ensure that it continues to be seen as a safe and dependable energy source for the future.
At present, there is arguably an ongoing and widespread misalignment between the perception of new and renewable energy and environmental initiatives such as carbon capture as ‘green, clean and therefore safe’. The reality is that the risks are often not dissimilar to those seen in legacy industries such as oil and gas, the key difference being that such industries are often seen as dirty, polluting and dangerous, with the consequence being that safety is viewed as a vital consideration, and has, as a result, become mature and well-advanced in these industries.
So, while most people might agree that the energy transition should be carried out as quickly as possible, it is essential that safety protocols are developed in tandem. Failure to consider adequately safety elements within the new 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.
It is therefore crucial that risks are fully understood, both where they are similar to more established sectors such as oil and gas, and where they differ, to develop a well thought out safety strategy. By having this in place, risks can be adequately mitigated and therefore investment decisions and planning approvals can be expediated.
If we consider the similarities to traditional energy sectors, these include risks related to confined spaces, explosion and fire hazards, exposure to toxic gases and environments where oxygen depletion may occur; risks which continue to be present across many areas of the new energy and low carbon sectors.
Where new energy technologies differ from the traditional oil and gas sector largely centres around improving our understanding of the unique risks posed by the use of EV batteries and storage of carbon dioxide and other key elements such as hydrogen.
Hydrogen is an interesting example to explore in more detail. Now widely considered to be an essential part of the UK’s future energy independence and security, improving education and awareness of hydrogen safety is critical for operators handling hydrogen equipment and for those overseeing its storage and transportation and will require close collaboration between industry and academia.
Dräger has been working with the University of Aberdeen for several years to support their research into hydrogen and renewable energy, both in supporting its students’ understanding of the safety risks and also by working to advise on safety technology installations for the University’s hydrogen lab. Once complete, the lab will provide a safe environment for their energy transition research. We believe that collaboration of this kind is essential to enable the development of industry-leading uniform safety protocols and recognised safety standards – which will play a critical part in the evolution of good safety in the sector.
The significance of hazardous environments where hydrogen may be present lies in its colourless, odourless characteristics and wide flammability range in air, increasing the likelihood of explosive reactions. This emphasises the relevance of safety advancements like digital connectivity to ensure the protection of employees and other assets.
In these situations, improvements in connectivity offer a number of key benefits, including live monitoring of gas levels, 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 if required, or emergency services granted access to the data which allows them to manage an emergency situation.
As far back as 2020, a report by trade union Prospect stated that at this time 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). Subsequently, one of the key themes raised in the Dräger 2021 Safety at Work report was concern 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 more encouraging indications that as the new energy and low carbon sector grows, it is beginning to recognise the fundamental importance of safety; research carried out in 2022 showed that 82 percent of those working in the UK’s new and renewable energy sector believe that 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 safety technology, should be at least partly encouraging for the wellbeing of those who operate in the new energy and low carbon sector. There remains much work to be done, however the direction of travel – as with the sector as a whole – suggests things are heading on the right course.
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