Photo by ABB.
The retrofit was carried out in three stages with customized solutions required for each of the switchgear cabinets, including replacing aging circuit breakers with more advanced, smarter Emax2 models as well as relay protection and energy metering.

Extend Asset Lifespan, Embrace Sustainability

June 6, 2024
Utilities can improve the use of their existing asset capacity by following an all-encompassing and predictive servicing approach.

Utilities face a confluence of challenges as they look to preserve grid reliability — rising costs, output capacity and a workforce shortage are just some of the forces at work — while adding new energy resources and modernizing their networks. In the U.S., the government is prioritizing grid resilience like never before. With 70% of the nation’s grid more than 25 years old, Congress is making historic investments through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that will strengthen the transmission network to drive down energy costs, generate good-paying jobs and help to keep the lights on during extreme weather events.

The Department of Energy estimates that outages alone cost the U.S. economy $70 billion annually, and this is only set to worsen if the domestic power grid is not modernized and expanded.

Continued turbulence in the geopolitical environment — impacting energy security and ongoing inflationary pressures — is forcing utilities to rethink how they structure their spending. Rather than investing substantial sums in new power distribution equipment, utilities are taking a more preemptive and circular approach that includes extending the life cycle of their networks. Leveraging the assets utilities already have can help them to future-proof the grid against recessionary pressures, while reducing operational expenses and preventing costly substation shutdowns.

Sustainable Business Model

It is not just about building bigger and better to resolve the issue of energy security and reliability. The lead time on commissioning new electrical equipment puts time constraints on the pressing need to update infrastructure. Plus, it also is not a sustainable business model. For example, consider the additional mining of iron ore and copper along with the carbon footprint to manufacture and deliver such equipment.

So, what value adds can U.S. utilities learn from their European counterparts? They are actively implementing more sustainable solutions by adopting the 3Rs: repair, refurbish and retrofit. For them, it makes economic and corporate sense to optimize assets — because the most sustainable and cost-effective solution is assessing existing equipment.

Smarter and well-planned investments improve distribution security. They also enable utilities to achieve much more with much less, while continuing to use the existing power grid infrastructure and simultaneously transitioning to a new one. Upgrading outdated components can reduce the cost of operating equipment by one-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, substations can improve their energy capacity by up to 20% and reduce their operational costs by up to 30%.

Minimal Disruption

Another key benefit of a speedy retrofit is the lack of downtime during the upgrade. 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 a retrofit upgrade was the most far-reaching solution.

Its innovative CHP plants harness the waste heat created during electricity generation and convert it to usable power for the local infrastructure, so their continuous and safe operation during any improvement works is essential.

Save Resources, Costs, Time

Likewise, as part of its efforts to achieve net-zero fossil carbon dioxide emissions, Swedish electricity supplier Mälarenergi has just upgraded its switchgear with retrofit solutions at its cogeneration plant, one of the largest in the country.  Only renewable and recycled fuels (made up of waste from society and spills from the forestry industry) are used in this district heating plant, which produces 1800 GWh of heat and 700 GWh of electricity annually and provides heat to 98% of all properties in the locality.

The retrofit — carried out in three stages with customized solutions required for each of the switchgear cabinets, including replacing aging circuit breakers with more advanced, smarter Emax2 models as well as relay protection and energy metering — has resulted in operational benefits for the plant. Rolf Bäckström, maintenance engineer at Mälarenergi, said that by modernizing its electricity system, the utility can avoid unplanned downtime, maintain predictable delivery to customers, and increase safety for both personnel and equipment.

It also means most of the critical infrastructure has had its lifespan extended, avoiding the carbon footprint implications associated with manufacturing an entire new system, as well as additional transportation costs and inevitable emissions.

What is more, with regular maintenance and monitoring of the new components, the life of the plant’s switchgear can now be multiplied indefinitely without the need for replacement, which is tangibly maximizing the utility’s investment and reducing total cost of ownership.

In fact, 50% of electrical equipment like metal cabinets, steel plates and bus bars — products with high embedded carbon and material footprints — can be used perpetually without being replaced if outdated components such as circuit breakers, electrical switches, fuses and contactors are regularly monitored, maintained and upgraded.

Collaboration Pays Off

Additionally, two of Finland’s biggest hydropower plants, located in the Arctic Circle and operated by Kemijoki Oy, benefitted from a retrofit solution that upgraded its dated circuit breakers. The plants avoided having to replace the entire switchgear operation.

With an 11-MW output and powering over 10,000 family homes between them, the plants were running on their original SF6-based HPA circuit breakers. Despite being technically competent, they were no longer in line with Kemijoki’s strict environmental diversification program.

Lack of available spare parts also was 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 12-kV version of the medium-voltage VD4G vacuum circuit breaker family was specified, which clears business critical short-circuit faults in tens of milliseconds, in a heavy-duty utility where even a brief blackout 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.

Jarkko Virtanen, vice president of electrical and machinery technology at Kemijoki Oy, said that good operational preconditions at the river are a prerequisite for cost-effective hydropower production,  and ABB Ltd. made it very easy for the utility with a plug and play model that saved valuable time, money and resources. He added that they also have a far more reliable operational procedure now, because it handles the currents much better.

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

Running a piece of critical equipment to the point of failure could cost up to 10 times more than investing in a program of regular maintenance to extend the life cycle and productivity of electrical assets, in addition to avoiding the environmental impact of buying new equipment.

Greater Flexibility

To operate in an ever-changing and volatile environment, utilities must 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.

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

In this way, utilities can now accurately measure the real-time status of their equipment, telling them a lot more about the setup they already have with minimal interference to operations. The system can quickly identify when any operating parameter is outside the proper range, from current to voltages and temperature to vibration, meaning they can address any issues before they become failures.

Utilities need to shift from traditional and often reactive crisis management to more proactive resiliency planning — preparing the grid ahead of time to prevent a crisis. This starts by improving the use of existing asset capacity through an all-encompassing and predictive servicing approach.

Improved Grid Resilience

By leveraging new technologies and retrofitting dated components with digital upgrades, utilities can achieve improved grid resilience with greater ease, speed and regularity, as well as helping to deliver performance improvements, investment optimization and new levels of sustainable efficiency.

The future will require even greater innovation and ingenuity to achieve much more with much less. But, at a time when the utility industry is being compelled to raise safety standards and take tangible action on climate change, the question is not how can utilities afford to prioritize retrofitting but rather how can they afford not to?

About the Author

Stuart Thompson

Stuart Thompson is ABB Electrification Service division president and leads a $1 billion revenue business of more than 2500 global service professionals across 51 countries.  Established as a stand-alone business area in 2022, Thompson was promoted to head up the new Electrification Service division, having held previous roles as global product group service leader for ABB Electrification and Electrification Distribution Solutions. 

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