China is the biggest wind turbine maker – and consumer – in the world. But its wind industry is increasingly being plagued by safety concerns, most recently with an accident this week that killed five people.
The sleek modernity of today’s wind turbines belies the dangers inherent in their operation: technicians can get hurt falling from their tall towers or tangling with powerful moving parts inside the turbine itself.
This week China saw one of its most deadly wind accidents yet, when a late-night crane collapse killed five people, including two local officials, who were visiting a Sinovel production zone in Jiuquan, Gansu. According to Sinovel, the accident happened Monday evening while tests were being run on a large Zoomlion crane, causing the arm of the crane to break off. Sinovel, China’s largest turbine maker, dismissed Chinese media speculation that the officials were present at the site for an installation ceremony.
Cranes collapse all the time in China and in other countries. But the recent accident fits into a series of mishaps in China that have renewed concerns about safety and quality standards in the turbine industry. Earlier this year, one worker was killed and two injured by a taut wire while they were working on a Sinovel turbine in Zhangjiakou. Last year, two facilities reported wind turbines on fire: a Suzlon turbine in Inner Mongolia in April and a Dongqi turbine in January. Chinese wind farms have also struggled with grid failures, causing large-scale blackouts at least twice this year.
Wind is still relatively harmless compared to other forms of energy globally. From coal miners dying in mines, to solar panel installers falling off of roofs, to fatal accidents on oil rigs, no form of energy can claim a perfect record. Impartial statistics on wind injuries and deaths are hard to come by but one anti-wind group that keeps a running tally says at least 88 people have been killed in the wind industry globally in recent decades. In the US for example, two people died on wind farms in August, one from falling from a turbine and the other in a bulldozer accident.
China’s wind accidents stand out however because industrial fatalities often go unreported. The accidents are bound to reinforce broader concerns about quality in the Chinese turbine industry, which has grown from almost nothing to become the biggest wind turbine producer in the world in just a few years.
The Chinese government has voiced concerns about the extremely rapid development of the domestic wind sector and tried to raise standards this year with new regulations on turbine certification. Accidents like that in Gansu, it is hoped, will speed that process.