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Emerging energy technologies

Welcome to the HSE podcast.

This month we look at how HSE is working to support the UK's transition to safe, low carbon, affordable energies as we speak to Taf Powell, Director of HSE's Emerging Energy Technologies programme.

This decade - between 2010 and 2020 - is really the decade of demonstration where we have to prove these technologies.

But first, here's a round up of other health and safety news.

Over the next month, HSE inspectors will be making unannounced visits to construction sites all over Britain in a bid to reduce death and injury in the industry.

From April 2009 to March 2010, 42 construction workers were killed nationwide, with three quarters of these deaths on refurbishment, repair and maintenance projects. It is this type of work that the intensive inspection initiative will target.

The focus will be on ensuring that sites are managing work at height safely, that they are maintained and in good order. Inspectors will also be checking that asbestos surveys have been carried out.

During last year's initiative nearly one in four of the construction sites visited failed safety checks. More than 2000 sites were visited and almost 700 enforcement notices issued

Camden Council has been fined £72,000 after a boundary wall collapsed in high winds, killing a two year old toddler - Saurav Ghai - who was walking through Gospel Oak with his childminder. Camden Council, who were responsible for maintaining the wall, pleaded guilty to charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The council was also ordered to pay an additional £65,000 in costs.

HSE wants to hear your views on proposed changes to the way in which injuries are reported under RIDDOR - that's the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations.

At the moment an employer is legally required to report work related injuries when employees are unable to carry out their normal work tasks for three days or more.

A recommendation in the Government-commissioned report 'Common Sense, Common Safety', was to raise the threshold from three to seven days. That would make it the same as the period after which a fit note is required from a GP, ensuring that someone who has suffered a reportable injury has had a professional medical assessment.

There's a link to the consultation paper on the HSE website at hse.gov.uk/consult. You've got until the 9th May to give us your views on the proposal.

Well there's been lots of news coverage recently about renewable energy - everything from offshore wind farms through to shale gas extraction. We're now going to talk to Taf Powell who's HSE's Director of Emerging Energy Technologies about how HSE's keeping up with all these developments. Taf, in a nutshell, what are emerging energy technologies?

Well you've mentioned renewables in your intro but it's not just renewables. It's using fossil fuel as well - finding new ways to burn coal to make it more efficient, finding gas in hard to extract places like shale gas, burning waste, turning waste into fuel, the hydrogen economy, using hydrogen to store energy. So it's a very big spread.

So I'm guessing the industries that are actually driving this, that are driving this development, this is quite a key moment so HSE has to really strike while the iron is hot, doesn't it?

It does. This decade - between 2010 and 2020 - is really the decade of demonstration where we have to prove these technologies. HSE's here as the responsible enabling regulator, supporting their safe introduction and expansion into the economy and by 2020 these hopefully established new technologies like carbon capture and storage, large scale bio waste, hydrogen cells and so on will become part of the energy economy and our energy mix will be assured.

So I suppose that means you have an open mind to it so as long as it can be shown to be safe - you're encouraging its development?

That's an interesting question because yes we do. We're not here to prevent work. We're here always as the enabling regulator to make dangerous technologies, dangerous workplaces, as safe, as acceptably safe as they can be.

When it comes to these kinds of industries, these emerging energy technologies, what kinds of risks are you seeing?

First of all, familiar occupational hazards in unfamiliar environments. So you've got falls from height, electrocution, you know, guarding of machinery and so on. Construction and excavation risks. Chemical and biological hazards from handling waste and other biomass, there's going to be a lot more sorting of waste into the things that can be combusted and those that can't. Asphyxiation risks in confined spaces, so familiar hazards, unfamiliar environments. Then you've got new major hazards and an increase in some existing major hazards. Now a major hazard, to be clear, is an incident that can escalate off site, often involves explosion risks or big major structural collapse with a confined population, so on a big jack-up barge off shore doing heavy lifts, if that thing topples over there's a big population at risk. So it's got the capacity to injure or kill large numbers of people in a single incident for example. Carbon capture and storage. Compressed carbon dioxide, dense phase or super critical behaves very strangely. It's a very interesting fluid but we're not used to handling it at the huge volumes that we'll need to to handle the output from power stations and the huge pipeline lengths and processes getting it offshore and so on. And the point is that the industrial sectors themselves create the risks, they benefit, they profit from these risky enterprises and theirs is the responsibility to minimise those risks to an acceptable level and as a responsible regulator it's our job to see that they're doing it, but it's not our job to solve the problems, although we certainly are engaging with the new sectors as much as we can.

Now the way you've been working with these technologies so far is that you've been doing it on a programme basis - you're the Director of the Emerging Energy Technologies programme - I understand that's going to change as you attempt to mainstream that into the work of HSE.

Well that's right - we're putting it into the DNA of the organisation. The interesting thing is about HSE is how wide its technologies are, how wide its expertise is. Because we embrace nuclear technologies, chemicals, toxics, occupational health and safety in factories, construction, offshore and we regulate all sectors, and that gives us tremendous width and depth of expertise and enables us to take this on without having any favourite technologies. We're completely energy technology neutral and we support all these sectors and are able to bring expertise from other areas to bear, as for example, food manufacturers turn into fuel producers using their waste. We can actually bring our expertise to bear as these sectors expand into these new green technology areas.

Going forward from here as you mainstream your approach to these emerging energy technologies, what's HSE's biggest challenge?

Well, the biggest challenge is balancing the work that we need to do with the legacy work of HSE which isn't going away. Making sure that we maintain the expertise that we've grown so carefully over the last two years that we've been running this programme. That we are choosing the right priorities for developing our expertise and working with the energy sectors and to that end we've developed four - we're calling them key emerging energy projects, or 'KEEPS' - where we're looking at the carbon capture and storage sector, the wind farm sector, the LNG regasification sector. That's where ships come into the UK and by a process on the ship actually convert the LNG into gas and put it straight into the national grid. And the last one is large scale waste to fuel plants, which are getting very large. These technologies are capable of being introduced and we are able to regulate them effectively as time goes by.

I'm guessing you've learned quite a lot in the last couple of years of doing this. What's been the most significant thing for you?

Oh, it's been amazing. I mean the things you learn, as they say. Who'd have thought that carbon capture and storage for example, where you take the CO2 from mostly at the moment anyway the back-end of a power station, compress it into its liquid form, pipe it hundreds of miles out into the north sea and bury it permanently underground there would ever be anything that would be remotely viable or feasible. But indeed it is. The huge scale of wind farms. Absolutely staggering. How that technology's going to work and how we're going to balance the load in the UK and make it play its part. It really is almost too mind-blowing to single out anything that's been most remarkable. We are going through a remarkable phase. And most of us can remember the growth of the North Sea and what an amazing adventure that was. You think of the North Sea by 2020 and oil and gas, yes, that's going to be there, but there's also going to be big clusters of salt domes, storage of imported gas, there's going to be LNG regasification, there's going to be underground coal gasification. We're going to be extracting energy from coal seams under the sea, without mining the coal. We'll be burying carbon dioxide there. We're going to have these huge wind farms, perhaps wind parks would be a better way of putting it, there'd be wave and tidal schemes operating. So it's a huge energy province. It's really exciting.

That's Taf Powell, he's the Director of Emerging Energy Technologies, at the Health and Safety Executive.

Visit the transcript for this podcast episode at hse.gov.uk/podcasts for more information about the issues discussed in this interview.

If you've got anything to say on the regulation of new energy technologies let us know at hse.gov.uk/podcasts or click on the feedback link at the bottom of any HSE web page.

Updated 2011-02-25