It was just before midnight on a winter’s night last year. Outside in the gusting January wind it was freezing, but Bill Jarvis was sitting by the fire with his wife Annie and a few relatives in their cottage on the North Devon moors.
And that’s when they heard it: a tremendous ‘crack’, louder than a thunderclap.
‘We rushed outside wondering what on earth had happened,’ recalls Bill. ‘We thought perhaps a plane had crashed it was such a loud noise. ‘We couldn’t see flames or anything burning, even though we peered out in the direction it had come from. There was nothing else though, no more noise or aftershocks.’
Deafeningly loud it might have been, but what the Jarvis family had heard – as they were to discover the following morning – had taken place at Bradworthy, a mile away. It was the noise of a 115ft-high wind turbine crashing to the ground.
‘It’s pretty terrifying stuff,’ says Mr Jarvis. ‘I’m no fan of the things and this has just added to my worries. Just think what could have happened. It sends a shiver down your spine.’
He is not the only one feeling nervous about the march of the giant metal windmills across the British landscape.
This week, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produced two reports – one into the catastrophic failure of the Bradworthy turbine and another into the collapse of a turbine in the next county, Cornwall, just three nights later.
And its conclusions are not merely unsettling, but have frightening implications for wind turbines and their safety right across the country.
The turbines in Devon and Cornwall came down when the wind was blowing at barely 50mph, despite the fact that they are supposed to withstand blasts of just over 115mph.
And, as the HSE concluded, the causes were manufacturing faults and basic mistakes in the way they were installed. The errors have already been replicated elsewhere in the country, as the two reports make clear, and could affect dozens – if not hundreds – more of the giant towers.
It is hardly encouraging to learn that the HSE reports were not published in a normal sense, but were available only on request and in redacted form.
They have come to light now only through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests lodged by a number of concerned residents.
Dr Philip Bratby, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, believes the risk of collapse will continue to grow as long as the wind industry is allowed to operate behind a wall of secrecy.
A retired physicist, who formerly worked in nuclear energy, he says: ‘Safety standards in my line of work were paramount. We constantly monitored, tested and maintained equipment but this does not seem the case with turbines.
‘These two failures were catastrophic. The towers came crashing down with great force from a great height.
‘It was only down to luck it happened in the night and no people or animals were injured or killed.
‘The wind industry is very secretive about everything it does. It won’t publicise any definitive information about accidents so it is impossible to make an independent assessment of the risks.’
Dr Bratby lives at Rackenford, high on the edge of Exmoor, where there has also been a proliferation of turbines.
‘I am not convinced that we are learning from the bad experiences and feeding those lessons back into the education of designers and constructors because the industry is growing so rapidly,’ he says.
‘The size of these turbines seems to keep on increasing and I believe the dangers will increase accordingly. The bigger the turbine that fails, the bigger the potential for disaster and death.’
Turbine towers are supposedly secured by lowering them on to a series of foundation rods that emerge vertically from a concrete foundation.
These are levelled by the adjustment of bottom nuts below a flange at the base and then fixed with another set of nuts above the base.
All the exposed metal, including the rods and the nuts, is then encased in grout which protects it and spreads the stresses from any movement in the turbine.
Yet as these groundbreaking HSE reports show, not only were some of the parts faulty, two different sets of sub-contractors made the same basic – possibly cost-cutting – errors. And the result was that the metal monsters were not secure at all.
In the incident at East Ash Farm, Bradworthy, on January 27, 2013 – the one heard by Mr Jarvis – an E3120 model, made by Canadian-based Endurance, was found to have been installed with the wrong configuration of nuts at its base.
This upset the ‘loadings’, or balance, of the tower. The implication is that it wasn’t level. To compound the problem, the contractors who installed it had failed to use structural-grade grout to seal the rods and bolts from the worst of the weather and had used a ‘cosmetic’ compound instead.
The HSE reports reveal that the same faulty configuration of nuts had been to blame at Wattlesborough, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, the previous year when another E3120 collapsed.
To date, Endurance has erected 300 of the E3120s throughout the United Kingdom.
The UK arm of the company says it has inspected all of them and carried out urgent repairs on 29 of the towers.
A different type of turbine fell at Winsdon Farm, North Petherwin, Cornwall, on January 30. This was a G133, manufactured by Gaia-Wind, originally a Danish firm.
This time there was a fault with the components, resulting in a failure in the foundation rods concreted into its base. But again, it had been badly installed with a lack of grout. As the HSE inspector concluded, there was ‘a lack of resilience to the fatigue loading within the securing arrangement… and poor fatigue strength in the securing components’.
The collapse of another G133 turbine at Otley, near Leeds, in April 2013 occurred in identical circumstances. Again, the securing rods were substandard. Once again, they had not been properly grouted in place.
As Dr Bratby points out, the footings and securings, which are difficult to inspect when encased in concrete and grout, are critical because they are subject to such huge and varying forces.
‘Over time they clearly degrade to the point of failure,’ he says. ‘We should be asking ourselves whether we are at a tipping point as the first-generation technology is exposed and compromised.’
Dr Bratby is frustrated at the lack of risk assessments undertaken when looking at sites.
He says: ‘I accept that the dangers from wind turbines located on farms without public access and remote from public rights of way are probably acceptable.
‘That is not always the case. They have been located close to roads and railways, at workplaces, in schools, hospitals and parks without any formal assessment of the dangers. I think that is unacceptable.’
His views are shared by fellow campaigner Alan Dransfield, from Exeter, who helped to mastermind the FoI application.
‘These reports took the best part of a year and several thousand pounds to compile, and the HSE decided to investigate because of the extensive media coverage and widespread public concern,’ Mr Dransfield says.
‘I’m delighted they did because look what they’ve found. Without doubt there is an urgent need for a more proactive stance with regard to the wind-turbine industry. It clearly can’t police itself.’
Taken together, there are 380 E3120 and GI33 towers. Of these, four are known to have collapsed, while repairs were necessary in 39 others to prevent potential further collapses.
Meanwhile, an as yet undisclosed number have further problems with the way they are bolted down, according to the HSE, and need repairing as soon as possible.
Revealing as they are, however, the two new reports deal with only a small minority of British turbines: there are 6,500 of differing design and manufacture across the country, and when it comes to problems with collapse or faulty installation, the public is wholly in the dark.
Figures from Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, a wind-turbine monitoring website, show that structural failure is the third most common major fault, behind blade failure and fire.
It has recorded an average of 149 accidents worldwide every year between 2009 and 2013 but believes this to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as it relies on scanning the internet for reports of such incidents.
‘The trend is as expected – as more turbines are built, more accidents occur,’ says a spokesman. ‘The numbers will continue upwards until the HSE helps force significant change.
‘In particular, the public should be protected by declaring a minimum safe distance between new turbine developments and occupied houses and buildings.’
However, Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety with Renewable UK, the industry trade association, believes that any fears of wind power are unfounded and the risks minimal and acceptable.
‘Manufacturers, installers and owners work hard to ensure that they meet extremely stringent health and safety standards,’ he says.
‘There’s a rigorous process, verified by independent bodies, to ensure strict installation standards and safe siting. That’s why problems are so rare.’
He adds: ‘When incidents do occur, it’s important to learn from them and implement any lessons fully and promptly. Any serious incident has to be reported to the HSE and we work closely with them to ensure high standards are maintained.
‘To put this into its proper context, no member of the public has ever been injured by a wind turbine. It’s unfortunate a handful of anti-wind campaigners are choosing to indulge in scaremongering.
‘Climate change is a real and pressing issue. When it comes to generating clean electricity, onshore wind is the most cost-effective way so we should be making the most of it.’
Meanwhile, at North Petherwin, the fallen wind turbine has now been resurrected. Indeed, landowner and Liberal Democrat councillor Adam Paynter has installed a second one alongside it. Mr Paynter declined to comment when contacted by The Mail on Sunday.
At Bradworthy, farmers Des and Vera Ludwell were also staying quiet about their windmill. A new turbine stands in the position of its collapsed predecessor, about 50 yards from the road. A second one is even closer, leaving little safety margin.
Councillor David Tomlin revealed there are 50 turbines within a six-mile radius of Bradworthy, a quiet market town, and a further 20 have been approved.
‘We are not anti-wind power as such,’ he says. ‘But there is a visual intrusion and residents who live close to turbines report a constant whooshing noise from blades. Most importantly, can we still be certain they are safe?
‘What happened here and in Cornwall and analysed in detail in these two reports should be a wake- up call. Perhaps we should halt the erection of further turbines pending an investigation of the industry as a whole.’
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