Many operators are quick to invest substantial sums in new power distribution equipment at even the slightest hint of a disturbance, when a more pre-emptive and circular approach would have extended the lifecycle of their assets instead. Stuart Thompson, President of ABB Electrification Service Division, explains how thoroughly reviewing your network first can reduce costs and even prevent costly shutdowns – as well as helping deliver performance improvements, investment optimisation and new levels of sustainable efficiency.

Stuart Thompson

 Utilities are facing an unprecedented pressure to ensure grid resiliency today while also preparing for the environmental challenges of tomorrow. So, it makes economic and corporate sense to optimise assets, because the most sustainable and cost-effective solution is assessing existing equipment.

Smarter and well-planned investment will improve distribution security, while it is also a case of achieving much more with much less, while continuing to use the existing power grid infrastructure and simultaneously transitioning to a new one.

Modernisation can no longer be about building bigger and better to resolve the issue of energy security and reliability. Not only is this not a practical solution – the lead time on commissioning new electrical equipment is long, which puts time constraints on the need to update infrastructure – it is not a sustainable business model either. Consider, for example, the additional mining of iron ore and copper along with the carbon footprint to manufacture and deliver such equipment, for example, switchgear enclosures and busbars. 

That is why progressive utilities are seeking more sustainable deliverables by adopting the 3Rs – repair, refurbish and retrofit.

VD4G vacuum breaker ENGIE

Extend lifecycle by 30 years

Upgrading outdated components can reduce the cost of operating equipment by a third and extend its life cycle by as much as 30 years, as well as resulting in considerable energy savings for utilities.

By replacing older, non-digital circuit breakers with more intelligent breakers, linked up to an advanced monitoring system, facilities can improve their energy capacity by up to 20 percent and reduce their operational costs by up to 30 percent. 

Another key benefit of a speedy retrofit is the lack of downtime during the upgrade and at a time when every minute of output counts, taking a retrofit approach means minimal disruption that lasts mere hours rather than weeks.

For example, when one of Europe’s leading energy suppliers ENGIE was looking to safeguard and extend the safe operating life of its switchgear systems across five of its combined heat and power (CHP) plants in Belgium, it quickly became apparent that a retrofit upgrade was the ideal solution.  By extracting as much value as possible from its existing equipment, the retrofit would not only deliver a more efficient and reliable energy supply, but also reduce total cost of ownership and greatly improve safety and performance.

Isolating power interruptions within milliseconds

By replacing conventional and aging breaker components with the latest VD4G vacuum circuit breakers, the upgrade protects ENGIE’s mission critical assets, such as generators and transformers, against potential short-circuits by isolating power interruptions within milliseconds and preventing severe damage and lengthy plant stoppages.

With continuous and safe operation absolutely essential, it not only provided a low carbon footprint solution, but minimised disruption to energy supply while guaranteeing reliable and safe electricity and future proofing their power plants.

Another bonus of a retrofit service is that upgrades can be implemented in stages and staggered to not only optimise capital expenditure, but also to allow work to be completed in short production breaks and within normal planned maintenance downtime. 

For ENGIE, this latest modernisation program is a tangible example of how the circular approach of extending asset lifespan and reducing the cost of operating equipment brings both short and long-term benefits, while helping deliver performance improvements, investment optimisation and new levels of sustainable efficiency.  

Likewise, when two of Finland’s biggest hydropower plants, located in the Arctic Circle and operated by Kemijoki Oy, wanted to upgrade their dated circuit breakers, we proposed and installed a retrofit solution, which avoided having to replace the entire switchgear operation.

In line with strict environmental diversification programme

The plants – with an 11 MW output and powering over 10,000 family homes between them – had been running on their original SF6-based HPA circuit breakers and despite being technically competent, were no longer in line with Kemijoki’s strict environmental diversification programme.

Lack of available spare parts was also becoming an issue for breakers that had been in commission for around 30 years. Another consideration was the key part Kemijoki hydropower plays in the country’s energy security and production, meaning downtime had to be kept to a minimum.

A customized 12kV version of the medium-voltage VD4G vacuum circuit breaker family was specified, which again clears business critical short-circuit faults in tens of milliseconds, in a heavy-duty utility where even a brief black-out can result in severe output disruption, with devastating knock-on impacts on revenue and reputation. Again, this retrofit solution meant downtime took just a matter of hours, ensuring the power was kept on without any disruption.

The project demonstrates the integral role a strong servicing collaboration can play in helping companies achieve their sustainability goals, because Kemijoki Oy saw the value of bringing in an expert servicing partner to inspect, analyse and evaluate the health of their electrical equipment, before suggesting a bespoke solution.

To operate in an ever changing and volatile environment, utilities should develop effective resilience strategies, with greater system flexibility, delivered through digital and emerging technology. Electric grids need to become more robust and allow a quicker response to outages through better use of fault detection, isolation and restoration.

Optimal grid efficiency

Digital circuit breakers can further be integrated with a combined energy and asset management solution (which calculates user-defined energy consumption metrics per piece or equipment) to give full remote system visibility and a more complete understanding of how to drive energy efficiencies, reduce capital costs and provide optimal grid efficiency.

Consequently, there needs to be a shift from traditional and often reactive crisis management to more proactive resiliency planning – preparing the grid ahead of time to prevent a crisis – and this starts with improving the use of existing asset capacity through an all-encompassing and predictive servicing approach.

The bottom line is that running a piece of equipment to the point of failure could cost up to 10 times more than investing in a programme of regular maintenance, not to mention the environmental impact of buying new equipment. At a time when the industry is being compelled to raise safety standards and take tangible action on climate change, the question isn’t how can we afford to prioritise retrofitting but rather how can we afford not to?