Eric Lethe | Vice President | Inland Technology Inc.
The need for environmentally compliant processes and materials in the renewable energy industry has grown substantially as the market for clean power has matured. Even though wind turbines don’t use combustion to generate electricity, and therefore don’t produce air emissions, there are still risks of toxic or hazardous materials in lubricating and hydraulic oils, and insulating fluids. Turbine components, such as blades, rotors, and compressors, also need upkeep and cleaning, and while many non-hazardous, biodegradable cleaners exist, that’s no guarantee they are used on every turbine.
Even before construction begins on a wind farm, most engineers are busy at some workshop formulating new materials or constructing new components—and chances are high that workshop contains some forms of hazardous materials related to the job or after-hours cleaning. The presence of industrial equipment during turbine-related construction, maintenance, and transportation also yields potential risks.
In the past, price, speed, and tradition were the primary criteria by which chemicals and materials were procured. With the advent of environmental regulations, processes have changed. However, most site or shop managers aren’t chemists or environmental engineers, and typically are only skilled in the basic policies of compliance and remediation.
Ideally, the examination of each process that uses potentially hazardous chemicals in a work environment should occur with each new project to determine if that process is even necessary. As part of a risk assessment, insurance companies are increasingly interested in the volume of hazardous materials on a jobsite. Despite safety regulations, the cost of worker illness or a chemical-related injury is rarely calculated into the price of a potentially hazardous cleaner or chemical oil.
As a general rule, the faster a chemical evaporates the greater the potential for a hazard associated with that chemical’s use, whether the hazard is toxicity, smog formation, flammability, or potential for ozone depletion. It is most likely that the alternative candidate material will evaporate more slowly. When selecting effective solvents or substitutes, it’s critically important to select a course of action based on each process rather than each chemical.
Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK), for example, is a solvent used in many applications. More than 60% of MEK evaporates without cleaning anything. With acetone that figure is closer to 80%. The actual cleaning is done with only 20% to 40% of the solvent and the remaining percentage is wasted into the air and, potentially, into the lungs of the person using it. Nonetheless, searching for an alternative is of little value without knowledge of MEK’s intended use, whether that involves surface cleaning prior to painting, cleaning prior to welding, cleaning already painted equipment, or something else.
It’s important to assume the premise that a substitute material will behave differently, and not for all of the applications of the original material. What’s called for is an organized method for determining the applicability of candidate materials, based on a “needs assessment” of the affected processes.
Even with the best intentions, there are two common challenges when it comes to making changes at most jobsites, even if they are as simple as using a new hydraulic oil. When it relates to a new product, there’s always the risk it might fail to perform or meet expectations. This is why testing is important. The second challenge is worker compliance. Change is difficult for most people. For a manager, it’s worth considering the question: “Was the problem that the chemical did not work, or was the problem that the personnel would not work with the chemical?” In this case, communication is key.
A site manager is likely aware of the reasons and regulations driving the process of change, but the personnel are the people who are working with the new materials and who will, ultimately, determine the success of a project. A two-way street of shared knowledge and experiences is extremely important when using potentially hazardous and costly materials. An updated and organized method for solvent implementation and substitution is necessary for proper environmental compliance and, most importantly, for providing a safe and healthy work environment.
To ensure successful use of solvents and reduce the risk of injury or accidents, site and project managers should consider the following steps:
1. Identify targets. Do your research and make a list of real or potential hazardous waste sources or health and safety material concerns at each jobsite. At a wind farm, this could even mean ensuring due diligence with the contractors on the job, verifying that equipment and transportation vehicles are up to code.
2. Describe all processes. Know what materials and solvents are used on a jobsite and know the purpose of each one. If a gearbox developer recommends a certain lubricant, understand its constituents and possible toxicity level.
3. Share the knowledge. Ensure workers and personnel are aware of onsite chemicals, and let staff know of pertinent solvent substitution efforts.
4. Learn about new candidates. If necessary, request current vendors or contracts provide a list of environmentally responsible substitutes for the target solvents. These requests should be application specific and contain Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that fully indicate the contents of the candidate material. Directly contact the manufacturer for this list if it’s not readily available.
5. Run a test trial. Always test new materials and substitute solvents offsite before committing to their use, and try new materials in a limited and controlled area at first. For instance, as a wind-farm developer interested in switching from conventional petroleumbased hydraulic fluids to biodegradable ones, you might not have a spare offsite turbine to test the new lubricant. But the vendor should offer proven test results and referrals. It’s also possible to try the new product on one turbine before committing to your entire fleet.
6. Train employees. Whenever new materials or substation solvents are used, it’s imperative to develop a clearly defined method for application. Ask the vendor of the candidate material to supply training or references. During the training period, make sure there are opportunities to integrate suggestions from personnel who will actually use the product. Often this is the best way to develop the most efficient methods for use of a new material.
7. Evaluate. Establish a time frame for the primary implementation. At the end of the period, call in representatives of each step of the usage process and obtain feedback on the new materials.
For a digital copy of the entire August issue of Windpower Engineering & Development, click here.