Question of the Week: Does the media overreact to turbine failure?

WORLDWIDE: Turbines failures are often among the most-read and covered stories on wind power despite their relative rarity, Windpower Monthly asks whether the increased coverage of this is disproportionate.

Television pictures from the Screggagh project in Northern Ireland (source: BBC)

The question was highlighted at the end of December, the Screggagh in Northern Ireland found itself at the forefront the UK national news after one of its Nordex turbines collapsed.

Question: Is the amount media attention that follows wind turbine failures fair?

Michael Zarin - Head of External Communications & Media Relations, Vestas Wind Systems

Turbine incidents often do attract media attention, and it is easy to understand why — they are pretty rare. And in an industry that operates with heavy machinery, with personnel sometimes working at great heights, and many people relying on the power produced by the turbines, it is natural that the media and public are keen to know more when an incident does occur.

Perhaps just as interesting, however, is how the industry deals with safety-related matters. In the past, industry players often had their own individual safety programs, standard practices were limited, and collaboration less common. Today, the industry is working more collaboratively than in the past with the common goal to eliminate safety-related incidents.

One example is the Global Wind Organisation. With GWO, turbine owners and manufacturers strive for injury-free work environments, and today cooperate on standardization and certification of safety training. Although safety-related incidents occur rarely, initiatives such as GWO are important for the industry. Safety is a common interest, and we encourage even greater collaboration and communication within the industry to learn from such incidents and thus reduce their occurrence still further.

Matthias Hollmann, General Manager, ABO Wind AG

At ABO Wind we are experiencing a growing and increasingly critical news coverage of wind energy in general and of some of our projects in particular. We take this development as a sign for the growing relevance of wind power within the energy sector. The numbers confirm it: In December of 2014, German wind turbines produced a record amount of 8.9 billion kilowatt hours, compared to 8.1 billion kilowatt hours per month produced by German nuclear power plants in 2013.

Of course, wind turbines can fail, just like any other power station. Their failure draws more attention, because outage or damage is much more visible compared to other types of power stations. Wind turbine failure or other technical issues come in handy for critics who oppose wind farms for other reasons, such as their impact on the landscape. Thus reporting on turbine failures is sometimes blown out of proportion.

We believe that a well-established industry such as wind energy can handle criticism, even if it is exaggerated or unjustified. Drawing attention to technical problems also helps to drive progress in turbine technology. However, this kind of media attention also demonstrates the growing need for good PR. Smaller problems such as ice throw or rare occurrences of fire should be weighed against the much more relevant advantages of wind energy over fossil fuels, including reducing environmental impact, climate change, and nuclear radiation.

Alison Jones, RES Community Relations Manager

Recent reporting of the incident at Screggagh has certainly re-opened the question over media portrayal of onshore wind. Headlines such as 'Massive Wind Turbine Crashes To Ground' (The Mirror, 3 January) certainly do not make easy reading.

However, the wind farm owner responded quickly and appropriately, stopping the other turbines as a precaution until investigations had been completed. This resulted in far more neutral and factual headlines, such as 'Wind turbine collapse investigated' (BBC News online).

While it is clear that some national media have an agenda when it comes to onshore wind, there are opportunities to move the focus away from the negatives and myths towards the positive truths. Wind is the most cost-effective form of large scale renewable energy currently available and is becoming cheaper. It is playing an increasingly important role in the UK's energy mix – supplying 25% of the country's electricity needs in December 2014 – and is crucial to delivering a secure and low carbon energy future.

The onshore wind industry needs to be much bolder about its dealings with the media and other key audiences, including politicians and communities, to deliver the message that onshore wind represents one of the best success stories this country has ever seen.