Failure fallout

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A video clip of a runaway wind turbine in Denmark and its dramatic disintegration, filmed from the window of a neighbouring house, had the same shock effect on politicians, newspaper columnists and the general public as witnessing a serious road accident. In the case of the "exploding turbine," however, nobody was injured, unlike in the hundreds of road accidents that do not attract such massive attention. The incident prompted immediate government action. Obligatory maintenance and safety control have been introduced for all wind turbines in Denmark (page 29), something the wind turbine owners association, currently with 38,450 members, has been requesting for more than 15 years.

Thirty years ago in Denmark wind turbine failures were worryingly close to 50%. By the end of the 1980s they were down to under 1%. The current rate is less than one per thousand among the 5000 turning, an achievement the car industry can only dream about. One of the reasons behind the rapid development of the technology and its reliability were the frank and open lines of communication between turbine owners and their suppliers whenever a failure occurred. Valuable lessons were learned. Since then, competitive pressures have led to an ostrich-like behaviour tendency among wind turbine companies. Putting your head in the sand in the hope of becoming invisible is not an advisable policy, however: wind turbines are all too visible in the landscape, also when standing still.

At one time Vestas enjoyed an enviable reputation. But its merger with NEG Micon earlier this decade brought with it the virus that had infected that company's management in the late 1990s when it calmly told an astonished gathering of wind turbine owners that there were no gearbox problems with its turbines. Many of those owners were dealing with the consequences of total gearbox failure. The change was felt by the owners of Vestas turbines: customer satisfaction plummeted until new management set a new agenda. Vestas knows it is in the process of turning a supertanker. That takes time and money. The company's immediate acceptance of responsibility for the much publicised exploding turbine -- and other similar failures recently -- is a positive and welcome development. Vestas' honest and open reaction attracted nearly as much attention as the failure. Though very few wind turbines disintegrate, every incident is one too many. Safety is paramount. And safety is always the prime responsibility of the owner.

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