Big questions after hurricane wind stops blowing

Most of the population will be blissfully unaware that the hurricane which ripped through Scotland last December, was officially called Hurricane Friedhelm.

Heaven knows what The Free University of Berlin, the institution that names such things, was thinking about when they gave a hurricane that was knocking seven bells out of Scotland a German name.

However, it wasn’t long before the colloquial name of Hurricane Bawbag replaced the official title. For those not well versed in the Scots language, a bawbag is a scrotum.

Hurricane Bawbag with its winds of 80mph and gusts of165 mph uprooted trees, tore the roofs off houses and forced the closure of schools and bridges.

The other thing that Bawbag did was it brought it home to many farmers the high-risk nature of owning a small wind turbine.

There has been an explosion in the numbers of farm wind turbines in the 10kw to 20kw range in the past two years, but they had never really been tested in anger before this winter. In the aftermath of the storm it was apparent that casualties were widespread; cracks in blades, buckled towers, brake failure and foundation problems, to mention but a few. What it highlighted was that research and development of small wind turbines is something that’s being carried out in the field.

The collapse of Proven Energy even before Bawbag got a chance to ravage their turbines was an early warning that things can go spectacularly wrong. Proven Energy’s P35-2 turbine was seen as being the market leader up until September last year, with 500 units already commissioned before it was discovered that it had “an acute design fault”.

I can speak with personal experience here because when it comes to the electricity generating business I’ve easily surpassed my own high standards of acting in haste and repenting at leisure. As a consequence, I don’t just have one P35-2 wind turbine, but can boast a matching pair of monuments to the allure of mammon.

In more recent times, Evoco Energy has advised its customers to temporarily apply the brakes to one of their turbines in the interests of safety. They have identified a fault in their 10kw model and are acting to rectify it while compensating their customers for lost income.

However, this second incident does raise concerns for the whole future of the small wind industry. This second scenario is not the same as the one that affected Proven Energy but does raise questions. On this occasion, the fault seems be relatively minor and the company involved are able to act decisively in the best interests of safety and their clients.

But let’s say in the future that a third manufacturer experiences amazing success and sells a thousand turbines and then a second cousin of Bawbag comes along next winter and rips the blades off one or two of their turbines. Will it be reasonable for a thousand turbines to be shut down because of a freak incident that affected only one or two of them?

There needs to be a more pragmatic approach to the risks concerned before this all gets out of hand. Farmers are buying equipment, in good faith, that has been rigorously tested to the highest standards and approved for use before they make their decision to buy. If they are to constantly find that they have to shut down their machines or have approval withdrawn retrospectively every time a freak storm causes some damage, then the next 20 years are going to pass very slowly for the pioneers in the small wind power business.

Neale McQuistin is an upland beef and sheep farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365ha in partnership with his wife, Janet, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.

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