Mitigating risk is an essential part of the process as Australia navigates the path to a clean energy future, writes Mike Hunneyball, operations chief engineer at FM Global.

Stakeholders are increasingly applying pressure on organisations to adopt clean energy sources as the consequences of climate change become undeniable. According to research at the University of Oxford, in England, more than 80 per cent of global economic output is now covered by a national net-zero target.

In Australia, more than 100 organisations recently urged the Federal Government and state governments to invest in a renewable future to turn the nation into a leading exporter of clean energy by 2030.

Regardless of whether those demands are met, many companies are pressing ahead to switch to renewable energy sources. A recent report by UK climate think tank Ember shows Australia is coming second only to the Netherlands in the speed of its adoption of new solar and wind power.

These changes offer real benefits to Australian businesses, but like any major transformation, switching to renewable energy brings risk exposures that companies must understand and manage. Here are three of the most popular renewable energy sources and some factors to consider to reduce risk and improve business resilience.

Australia generates 12 per cent of its total electricity from solar, the highest proportion of any major country in the world. Photo: Getty Images.

Solar panels

Australia generates 12 per cent of its total electricity from solar, the highest proportion of any major country in the world. However, solar panels can pose risks if not managed appropriately.

One of the main concerns with roof-mounted PV panels is electrical failure of circuits or control equipment. If an electrical failure occurs, it can result in a fire that damages surrounding equipment and the roof below. Combustible materials within a roof’s assembly can also feed a fire, leading to significant damage.

Many roof-mounted solar panel arrays are made with combustible plastics that significantly increase fire risk. Firefighting can be challenging if a blaze occurs due to solar panel equipment failure, however developing a pre-fire plan with local fire services ensures they are familiar with accessing solar panels and critical equipment such as inverters and related fuses and disconnects, which enhances their response capabilities.

Solar panels should also be regularly serviced to reduce fire risk. A trained professional can identify issues such as faults or damaged components and minimise potential ignition sources by removing debris.

Another key risk is the damage high wind speeds and hail can cause to solar panels. It’s important to ensure panels are adequately secured to prevent them from becoming loose, damaged or blowing away in high winds, and that panels have been designed and tested to withstand anticipated hailstorms and other severe weather events.

FM Global operations chief engineer Mike Hunneyball. Photo: Supplied.

Wind turbines

As a cheap source of large-scale renewable energy, wind turbines have a major role in Australia’s transition to clean energy. A report by Ember found that in 2021, they supplied 10 per cent of the nation’s annual energy generation.

As wind turbines have become more efficient, they have also increased in size, with some being up to 300 metres tall. Wind turbines are particularly vulnerable to natural hazards. For example, wind can cause damage to components such as rotor blades and can even topple a turbine in a worst-case scenario.

Failure resulting from lightning strikes is another common cause of damage to turbine equipment. Other risks such as fires, mechanical and electrical equipment failure, collision and corrosion can cause significant damage to turbines and need to be appropriately assessed and managed.

Lithium-ion batteries

Many organisations are investing in electrification and moving away from fossil fuel powered systems and machinery to only using electric power. The ability to store large amounts of energy in a cost-effective manner has seen batteries become an increasingly popular power source. At the end of 2020, 16 utility-scale batteries were under construction in Australia, representing more than 595MW of new capacity.

Lithium-ion batteries are prone to hazards such as thermal runaway and electrical fire. Thermal runaway due to internal shorts can lead to damage and overheating, producing flammable gas that builds up with the potential for an explosive rupture of the battery cell.

Building owners should follow advice about minimising the risk of thermal runaway, explosions and fire in renewable battery energy storage systems. This includes locating lithium-ion battery systems in outside enclosures, dedicated buildings or cut-off rooms within buildings, and providing automatic sprinkler protection. These features have the benefit of limiting the spread of fires and resulting damage, while also making access easier for fire services.

Engineering-based risk management improves resilience

Decarbonisation and electrification will likely play an increasingly important role in how businesses operate in future years as calls to move to a low-carbon economy grow stronger. Switching to renewable energy sources is one of the major steps businesses can take to reduce carbon emissions.

The benefits are clear and businesses are key to this transition, but they need to ensure any related risks are managed appropriately. This is where innovative and engineering-focused approaches can play an important role, helping businesses mitigate risks as they move towards net-zero.