Putting an image into perspective

A wind turbine that has suffered a catastrophic failure unfortunately makes for an arresting image. A tangled heap of twisted metal and glass-fibre shards surrounded by its own debris on a lonely plain is meat and drink to any picture editor.

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And this last winter has provided a handful of spectacular examples, from the rotor that "fell off" a Repower turbine in France in November, to the complete collapse of a tower supporting a Suzlon unit in Brazil the following month. Vestas and Siemens are also investigating recent major failures.

But, if that sounds bad, consider the following: there were no injuries associated with any of these incidents, and the other turbines on the affected projects either continued to generate electricity normally, or were quickly checked out and cleared for further operation. The impact on production and the environment was minimal.

You could not say the same about the blowout at a natural gas well in California that gushed uncontrollably for 16 weeks before finally being plugged on 11 February. Before that, it had been pumping huge volumes of methane - one of the most harmful of the greenhouse gases - into the atmosphere, generating carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to seven million cars a day. The foul-smelling gas forced many Los Angeles residents to leave their homes, just a few months after more than 600,000 litres of crude oil had been dumped on their beaches following a major spill from a corroded offshore pipeline.

Nor could you say it about the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York, which supplies around 30% of the city's electricity. It suffered three emergency shutdowns in December alone, and has now been discovered to be leaking radioactive material into the groundwater, prompting a state investigation.

Energy generation has historically been a dirty and dangerous business. The occasional failure of individual wind turbines should not detract from their well-earned reputation for being clean and safe.

Life after COP21

We will be taking a close look at the world's main and emerging wind markets in next month's issue, but as the figures for new installed capacity during 2015 filter through, it is becoming increasingly clear that wind-power growth in China and the US is fast outstripping Europe.

Spain and Italy — both of which used to be major markets for the continent — remain moribund, while the UK looks set to join them, at least in regard to onshore wind installations.

The successes in Europe were left to Germany, with the Global Wind Energy Council figures recording 6GW of new installations last year.

And Poland and France both achieved over 1GW growth.

Giles Dickson, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, points out that the major obstacle to growth in Europe is simply one of political will. Three months after all the fine words and pledges generated by the COP21 conference in Paris, only six of the European Union's 28 member states have made clear commitments and set out policies for renewables beyond 2020.

Europe is still a clear leader in terms of wind-power technology, and continues to pioneer development in offshore, low-wind locations, and extreme climates. But, as Dickson point outs, a strong domestic market is vital if the continent's major players - Vestas, Siemens, Gamesa and Enercon among them - are to remain cost competitive.

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