In among the tsunami of news coverage (especially at the BBC and the Guardian) about COP27, another story emerged today, reported on by the Guardian with a somewhat alarming heading: “World’s ‘most potent greenhouse gas’ escaped during work on UK windfarm”.
There are several worrying aspects to the story. The greenhouse gas in question is sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), which can apparently cause respiratory problems in humans. It is colourless and odourless, which presumably makes it difficult to detect (and, given its potential for causing respiratory harm, therefore dangerous). We learn that workers on offshore windfarms are concerned about this:
The incident occurred in June and has been brought to light by the North Sea trade unionist Jake Molloy, of RMT. Molloy told Energy Voice that “the Seagreen incident is one event that did get reported to the trade unions by worried offshore workers.
“But how many go unreported, how is this policed and regulated, what are the reporting procedures? We need to know. It has to be properly managed.”
Secondly, it turns out that this is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Wikipedia tells us that:
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change SF6 is the most potent greenhouse gas. Its global warming potential of 23,900 times that of CO2 when compared over a 100-year period. Sulfur hexafluoride is inert in the troposphere and stratosphere and is extremely long-lived, with an estimated atmospheric lifetime of 800–3,200 years.
The Guardian confirms that it’s not just the IPCC that is worried about it:
The US Environmental Protection Agency deems it the most damaging greenhouse gas and National Grid describes it as “one of the most potent greenhouse gases we know”.
Despite these issues, it seems it’s a vital ingredient for wind turbines. And so, despite being generally banned in Europe, an exception has been made “for use in power generation where it is used as an insulating gas in switchgear machinery”.
And it seems that it’s not easy to find replacements:
A spokesperson for SSE, which is responsible for the construction phase, said: “At the time of contract signing for the procurement of the transformer switchgear destined for the Seagreen project, which is currently under construction, there were no viable SF6-free alternatives available, capable of operating at all voltage levels needed, that could be considered for deployment to the project.”
Oh dear, the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again. As well as the other environmental damage associated with wind farms, now we learn that their construction and operation requires the use of one of the world’s most powerful greenhouse gases, which is potentially dangerous to the workers involved in the construction projects. Perhaps Just Stop Oil should re-focus their efforts and re-name themselves Just Stop Wind.