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Accidents & Safety

December 7, 2012
Paul Gipe

Wind Energy -- The Breath of Life or the Kiss of Death: Contemporary Wind Mortality Rates


December 7, 2012: Note that this article is out of date. See the most current version of the spreadsheets for details and links to information on fatal accidents in the wind industry. Below is the summary page from my table. Note that there are four other tabs not reproduced here.--Paul Gipe

An edited version of this article appeared in the Vol. 14 No. 4 – Autumn 2001 edition of WindStats Newsletter. Statistics on the number of deaths in the industry have been updated to fall 2009 and are reflected in the database. The article has not been changed in response to the new data.

Wind energy. Clean, green, and relatively benign. The operative word is "relatively" benign. Those of us who work with wind turbines and the electricity these machines produce know that wind can also be deadly.

In 1995 I first reported on the worldwide mortality rate within the wind industry in my book Wind Energy Comes of Age. The data was--and is--controversial. It's a topic few want to discuss.

WindStats has recently re-examined the mortality data in light of wind's rapidly expanding generation. The mortality rate is a function of not simply the number of deaths, but the number of deaths relative to the amount of electricity generated.

As part of this re-examination, WindStats is placing the accompanying data on deaths in wind energy within the public domain. We ask anyone with additional information on deaths or injury in the wind industry to contact us. We will track the mortality rate and periodically publish updates as warranted. We will also provide a spreadsheet of the data we collect to anyone who requests it.

It was hoped that as worldwide generation increased the rate of deaths per TWh will have declined over that originally published in 1995. Indeed, that is the case.

In the mid-1990s, 14 men had been killed on wind turbines or working with wind energy. Since then six more have died, including the first member of the public, a parachutist who literally flew into a turbine in Germany.

Total cumulative generation reached nearly 130 TWh from 1975 through the year 2000. The number of deaths per TWh of cumulative generation steadily dropped through the 1990s.

I reported in Wind Energy comes of Age a mortality rate of 0.27 deaths per TWh. However, the mortality rate was higher than I reported then. I had missed several accidents that I learned of later.

In the mid-1990s the mortally rate was actually 0.4 per TWh. The worldwide mortality rate dropped more than half to 0.15 deaths per TWh by the end of 2000.

One half of the deaths have occurred on or around turbines of the size typically installed during the great California wind boom of the mid-1980s. Still, 7 have been killed working with larger turbines.

Tragically, at least 3 people have been killed working with small turbines. These deaths dramatically skew the mortality rate because small turbines account for a minuscule amount of worldwide wind generation.

The preponderance of those killed worldwide were Americans; 12 U.S. citizens, and one Canadian. Germany, despite the phenomenal growth of it wind industry since 1990, has one of the lowest mortality rates of the four nations where deaths have occurred, 0.07 deaths per TWh.

The German rate includes the parachutist who, in her first unassisted jump, hit a wind turbine on the island of Fehmarn. In doing so she became the first women killed by wind energy and the first member of the public killed. However, it's important to note that though she was a member of the public, she was not a passerby, such as a person who walks or drives by a wind turbine. Her death is more akin to that of a suicide from a jump off a bridge or tall building. (This is a critical distinction. In the two decades I've tracked this data, no passerby has been injured by wind energy.)

The mortality rate in the USA, where all 13 deaths in North America occurred, is twice that of the international average. As is the mortality rate in the Netherlands.

Data from the USA distorts the mortality rates relative to deaths in construction and deaths in operation & maintenance. The great majority of deaths in the USA can be attributed to construction activities, when installing, moving, or removing wind turbines. Six were killed during operation and maintenance.

At least two of those killed in the USA, all in California, were killed during operations connected with moving wind turbines from one site to another. One of the deaths in Denmark was also related to removing a 55 kW wind turbine in Jutland that was to be replaced with a 500 kW machine.

The high number of deaths in the USA may be connected to the typically frantic nature of year-end, tax-subsidy driven installation booms.

Though no passerby or neighbor has been injured by a wind turbine, there is some, albeit minor, risk. For example, there are anecdotal reports of wind turbines throwing their blades. On Samsø a 55 kW Nordtank threw a blade through a window into an indoor swimming pool, according to one knowledgeable source. Fortunately nobody was home.

As turbines become larger, the consequences of such catastrophic failures as throwing a blade raises the stakes for the public at large. At the European Wind Energy Conference in Nice in 1999, the halls were a buzz with the news that several megawatt turbines had "lost" a blade in Germany. The manufacturers of the turbines were understandably uncomfortable even acknowledging that the events actually happened.

Probably no country, because of its high population density, has more interest in the potential of such accidents than the Netherlands.

ECN, the Dutch research center in North Holland, is developing a Handbook for Determining Risk Zones for Wind Turbines (Handboek Risicozonering Windturbines) according to ECN's Luc Rademakers. The handbook, says Rademakers, will contain a method to assess the risks associated with wind turbines and aid in planning for wind turbines in densely populated locales.

How does wind's mortality rate compare with that from other energy sources? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Part of the problem is that statistics on mortality rates for the full fuel cycle of coal, for example, are not readily available. And where available they use different units. Yet, it appears that the current mortality rate of wind energy of 0.15 deaths per TWh is roughly equivalent to that of mining, processing, and burning of coal to generate electricity according to some researchers. (This data doesn't include increases in mortality from the air pollution that results from burning coal.) Data from other researchers indicates that wind's mortality rate is about half that for the occupational mortality rate for coal.

The data clearly indicates that the wind industry will have to do a better job at improving safety if it wants to live up to its promise of being clean, green, and--benign.

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