Increasingly, due to cost control measures, sustainability initiatives, and political and societal pressure, companies, educational institutions, governments and individuals are installing and maintaining new sources of alternative energy. These include different types of wind, solar, geothermal and other energies, along with a focus on “green” building technologies.

In the U.S., the greatest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is the power sector, at about 38%. The largest source of power is coal, which, even though it produces less than 40% of the power, produces over 70% of the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions (20% of the greenhouse gas emissions are from natural gas-fired power plants).

Some of the risks we are seeing include:

  • Wind Power
  • Green Buildings/Roofs
  • Solar Power/Photovoltaic Cells
  • Microturbines
  • Geothermal Technologies
  • Alternative Fuels

Wind Energy

insights-wind-energy-350Although wind turbines have become familiar in much of the U.S., wind power still (in 2013) only accounts for about 4% of the power sector. The potential for wind energy is immense, and experts suggest wind power can supply more than 20% of U.S. and world electricity. In addition to wind farms, we all have seen installations of single wind turbines at industrial plants, schools, farms, etc.

The costs for a utility-scale wind turbine in 2012 ranged from about $1.3 million to $2.2 million per megawatt (MW) of nameplate capacity installed. This cost has come down dramatically from what it was just a few years ago. Most of the commercial-scale turbines installed today are 2 MW in size and cost roughly $3-$4 million installed. Wind turbines have significant economies of scale. Smaller farm or residential scale turbines cost less overall, but are more expensive per kilowatt of energy-producing capacity. Wind turbines under 100 kilowatts cost roughly $3,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt of capacity. A 10-kilowatt machine (the size needed to power a large home) might have an installed cost of $50,000-$80,000 (or more) depending on the tower type, height, and the cost of installation. Oftentimes there are tax and other incentives that can dramatically reduce the cost of a wind project.

In August of 2013, The Wind Program of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE) released its first annual distributed wind technology market report. According to the report:

Distributed wind systems account for 68 percent of all wind turbines installed in the U.S. in the past decade. Distributed wind capacity grew by 62 percent in 2012. Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, California, and Massachusetts led the states for all cumulative distributed wind installations over the past 10 years.

Some risk-related issues with wind turbines include:

Fire: There are well-documented cases of wind turbines catching fire and/or over speeding and exploding. Proper preventive maintenance is needed to control this exposure.

Tower Erection Issues: When the towers are erected, worker safety and liability issues are a concern.

Noise: Wind turbines are not silent. The sounds they produce are typically foreign to the rural settings where wind turbines are most often used, but as turbine technology has improved over the years, the amount of sound has fallen considerably.

Aesthetics: People have widely varied reactions to seeing wind turbines on the landscape. Some people see graceful symbols of economic development and environmental progress or sleek icons of modern technology. Others see industrial encroachment in natural and rural landscapes. There are many ways to minimize the visual impact of wind turbines, including painting them a neutral color, arraying them in a visually pleasing manner, and designing each turbine uniformly.

Shadow Flicker: Shadow flicker occurs when the blades of the rotor cast a shadow as they turn. Research has shown the worst-case conditions would affect, by way of light alteration, neighboring residents a total of 100 minutes per year, and only 20 minutes per year under normal circumstances. Designers of wind farms avoid placing turbines in locations where shadow flicker would be a problem any significant amount of time.

Biological Resource Impacts: As with any construction project or large structure, wind energy can impact plants and animals, depending on the sensitivity of the area. Loss of wildlife habitat and natural vegetation are the primary wildlife concerns associated with wind energy. With modern turbines, mounted on tubular towers and whose blades spin only about 15 times per minute, bird collisions are said to be diminished. Extensive environmental impact analysis is an integral part of project development to mitigate impacts as much as possible. The Audubon Society and Sierra Club both support wind energy development, because the environmental advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

It is worth noting however that, according to the journal BioScience, wind turbines reportedly killed at least 600,000—and possibly as many as 900,000—bats in the United States in 2012. Bats, which play an important role in the ecosystem as insect-eaters, are killed at wind turbines not only by collisions with moving turbine blades but also by the trauma resulting from sudden changes in air pressure that occur near a fast-moving blade, the study said.

For the first time, the Obama administration is taking action against wind farms for killing eagles. In a settlement announced recently, Duke Energy will pay $1 million for killing 14 golden eagles over the past three years at two Wyoming wind farms.  The company says it pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A study by federal biologists this year found that wind energy facilities in 10 states had killed at least 67 golden and bald eagles since 2008.

Green Buildings

According to the EPA, green building is ”the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.”  A green building is also known as a sustainable or high performance building.

Green roofs have increased in popularity and some issues may need to be addressed. These include water intrusion, collapse (static and dynamic loading), fire and wind.

insights-solar-energySolar Energy

From 2010 through 2012, photovoltaic solar panel installations have jumped nearly 300 per cent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Forecasts show the trend will continue to increase sharply through 2017. The SEIA also says New Jersey has the second highest solar capacity in the United States.

Firefighting and Electrocution Hazards: Solar panel hazards include potential for electrocution to both plant workers and firefighters. They also potentially inhibit firefighting efforts. An 11-alarm blaze at the frozen food warehouse in Delanco, NJ resulted in a total loss. The fire broke out and was finally declared under control three days later, but not before it completely destroyed the facility. In 2010, the company installed some 7,000 solar power modules at the facility. Solar panels can pose problems for firefighting efforts. According to the National Fire Protection Association, electrocution is one of the hazards firefighters are increasingly facing fighting blazes at structures where solar panels are deployed. As long as there is any kind of light present, whether it’s daylight or electronic lamp light, solar panels will generate electricity.

A 2011 study from the Underwriters Laboratory found solar panels, being individual energy producers, could not be easily de-energized from a single point like other electric sources. Researchers recommended throwing a tarp over the panels to block light, but only if crews could safely get to the area. Very often they’re not wired like your home, where you have a master breaker. Even if you turn the breaker off, the panels still generate electricity and they must be covered to prevent any light from getting into them.

Covering a roof with a large array of solar panels also presents access issues that can stop firefighters from making ventilation holes used to extinguish the fire. These access issues force firefighters to take a defensive approach by staying away from the building—rather than going inside and attacking the fire source, and therefore, slowing down or impeding fire suppression efforts.

With the continued growth of solar panels and other alternative energies, code officials, builders, and developers need to work with local fire departments to ensure that installations are designed with firefighting in mind. The new paradigm is that firefighters might encounter building systems with which they have little or no knowledge. Where previously, homes and commercial buildings had roofs and walls and heating and ventilation systems that the fire service was used to dealing with, new technologies—both in building construction and alternative energy systems—have changed that.

Installation, Wind and Water Concerns: There a numerous issues involved with integrating solar arrays on flat commercial rooftops. There is a potential for long-term roof damage associated with excessive weight, temperature changes affecting roof membranes, water penetration, and wind damage. Regular roof maintenance can become more difficult. With a large array of solar panels, a roof’s ability to shed water and snow may be altered, leading to leakage or excessive weight loads.

The design and installation of both photovoltaic and solar hot-water heating systems require site-specific planning and sophisticated expertise, as well as ongoing inspection and maintenance to assure safe operation.


Geothermal Energy

Geothermal heat pumps, also referred to as ground source heat pumps or geo-exchange, refer to systems that use the ground, groundwater, or surface water as a heat source or heat sink. Specific to their configuration, these systems are referred to as ground-coupled heat pumps, groundwater heat pumps, and surface water heat pumps, respectively.

Like refrigerators, heat pumps operate on the basic principle that fluid absorbs heat when it evaporates into a gas, and likewise gives off heat when it condenses back into a liquid. A geothermal heat pump system can be used for both heating and cooling. The types of heat pumps that are adaptable to geothermal energy are water-to-air and water-to-water. Heat pumps are available with heating capacities of less than 3 kilowatts (kW) to over 1,500 kW.

While most sites throughout the United States can utilize geothermal heat pump technologies, certain site characteristics will influence the type of system most suitable for a site. Available ground area, thermal conductivity of the surrounding soil, local ground water availability and temperatures, or access to open water sources can further direct their use in a project.

Types and Costs of Technology: Geothermal heat pump technologies can be utilized to meet both heating and cooling needs in new construction as well as major renovation projects. Incorporating these technologies into major renovation projects will generally result in higher installation costs than in new construction projects, but can operate at a greater efficiency than typical heating and cooling units.

Operation and Maintenance: Because geothermal heat pump systems have relatively few moving parts, and because those parts are sheltered inside a building, they are durable and reliable. The underground piping often carries warranties of 25 to 50 years, and the heat pumps often last 20 years or more. Since they usually have no outdoor compressors, they are not susceptible to vandalism. The components in the living space are easily accessible, which increases the convenience factor for upkeep.

Special Considerations, Codes and Standards: Special considerations for geothermal heat pump systems include relevant codes and standards. Design standards for geothermal direct-use systems involve two components:

  • Below-ground installations such as drilling wells, casings, and pumps
  • Above-ground installations such as pipelines, valves, heat exchangers, in-building heat convectors, refrigeration equipment, and low temperature components such as heat pumps.

(Source: US DOE, Federal Energy Management Program)

Risks and Liability Issues for Geothermal Energy: Some of the risks associated with geothermal heating and cooling may involve the following:

  • Construction liability
  • Damage or alleged damage from drilling and blasting
  • Professional liability and Errors or Omissions
  • Property lines and boundaries infringement and easement issues
  • Groundwater contamination
  • Warranty, mechanical performance and product liability issues
  • Building code and regulatory standards

Alternative Fuels

Biodiesel, bio-mass, and bio-gas have all been utilized to a greater extent in recent years. Biodiesel refers to a vegetable oil- or animal fat-based diesel fuels.

Biodiesel is meant to be used in standard diesel engines and is thus distinct from the vegetable and waste oils used to fuel converted diesel engines. Biodiesel can be used alone, or blended with diesel in any proportions. Biodiesel can also be used as a low carbon alternative to heating oil.

Biomass consists of biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. It refers to plants or plant-based materials. As an energy source, biomass can either be used via combustion to produce heat directly or indirectly after converting it to various forms of biofuel. Wood is still the largest biomass energy source today. Biomass also includes plant or animal matter that can be converted into fibers or biofuels.  Industrial biomass can be grown from numerous types of plants, include switchgrass, corn, hemp, sugarcane, bamboo, and other species of trees.

Biogas typically refers to a mixture of gases produced by the breakdown of organic matter. Biogas can be produced from raw materials sourced locally like recycled waste. It is classified as a renewable energy source.

Risk Assessment and the Growth in Alternative Energy and Sustainability Solutions

Installations and applications of alternative energies are here to stay, and growing. Sustainability efforts by companies save money. With the many technical, economic, political, and community relations issues involved with alternative energy installations, safety professionals need to work with company management to identify and control associated risks.

For More Information

For a more in-depth discussion about specific risk assessment and risk management issues associated with various alternative energy and sustainability technologies and installations, please contact Scott Patterson at Alexander & Schmidt.