Industry Outlook is a regular Data Center Journal Q&A series that presents expert views on market trends, technologies and other issues relevant to data centers and IT.
This week, Industry Outlook asks Joe Richard of Schneider Electric about changes to medium-voltage switchgear and how they can benefit data center operators. Joe is the US Launch Manager for Schneider Electric’s Premset Switchgear. He graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a BS degree in electrical engineering in 2007 and has been with Schneider Electric since 2008. Joe has worked in a variety of roles including sales, marketing and business development. His main focus has been medium-voltage distribution switchgear and its applications. His professional interests include power distribution, energy efficiency, power protection and automation, energy storage, and renewable energy.
Industry Outlook: What are some changes you’re seeing that are straining the electrical-distribution industry?
Joe Richard: Our world is changing rapidly, and even fairly conservative industries like electrical distribution have seen significant evolution in recent history. Some changes are obvious—for example, the increased emphasis on safety and arc-flash management—while others are more subtle, such as harsher scrutiny of both capital and operational budgets. During the economic recession, facility expenses came under closer scrutiny as facility managers explored sources of cost reduction. This approach, however, often conflicts with keeping reliability and safety top priorities. The makeup of the workforce in the electrical-distribution industry is also undergoing considerable changes. Multitudes of electrical-industry veterans with decades of experience are retiring or nearing retirement, and there’s a disparity in the quantity, knowledge and experience of their replacements. This situation is increasing labor costs across the board.
IO: How are these changes driving a need for new medium-voltage technology?
JR: Medium-voltage technology has responded in several ways. First, emphasis on safety and safety by design has increased. Over the past century, medium-voltage switchgear has made several generational leaps in safety design, but since metal-clad became common place in the late 1970s, the changes have been minor. The past 10 years, however, have seen several new designs with metal-enclosed vacuum circuit-breaker switchgear that feature new safety functions, such as internal grounding switches, solid dielectric phase insulation and an emphasis on intuitive operation, including protective safety interlocks to prevent access to live components and inadvertent operation.
To address cost, customers are looking beyond capital expenditure to total cost of ownership for switchgear. They’re now considering decreased installation time, longer maintenance cycles and managed switchgear end-of-life programs. Additionally, switchgear designs are becoming more reliable and longer lasting by using more-robust materials and by removing common failure points, including environmental contamination, susceptibility to aging and human error. By employing new medium-voltage switchgear designs, customers will have fewer headaches managing their electrical-distribution networks.
IO: What are the concerns with gas-insulated switchgear and what are the alternatives?
JR: The most common concern I hear about gas-insulated switchgear is the gas, which is most often sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)—a colorless, odorless, nontoxic gas that has about three times the dielectric strength of air. It often serves in the electrical industry in medium- and high voltage-applications as well in other industries such as semiconductor manufacturing, medical, high-power microwaves and even shoe manufacturing.
The problem is it’s a potent greenhouse gas. Since the awareness of SF6’s global-warming potential became more widespread, many users have begun programs to manage their SF6 leakage. Between 1990 and 2013, the name-plate capacity of SF6 has almost doubled while the SF6 emission rate has dropped by 87 percent, largely due to programs like the EPA’s voluntary SF6 reporting. Modern gas-insulated switchgear designs are much better at both preventing and monitoring gas leakage, and in the medium-voltage switchgear industry you can eliminate on-site gas handling through sealed-for-life tanks.
Yet many customers would prefer solutions that avoid SF6 gas. Although some alternative dielectric gases are undergoing study for use in electrical distribution, I’m unaware of any that are commercially available in medium-voltage switchgear. So it leaves us with basically two choices: air-insulated products such as traditional metal-enclosed and metal-clad switchgear, which is much larger, and solid-insulated products, which are viable at the lower ratings of medium-voltage design.
IO: What is shielded solid-insulated switchgear?
JR: Shielded solid-insulated switchgear (2SIS) is a new technology developed to help address all of the market changes we’ve discussed. Whereas solid-insulated switchgear uses a solid dielectric material to prevent voltage breakdown, 2SIS goes a step further by adding a ground shield around the outside of the solid dielectric layer. It’s similar to medium-voltage shielded cabling, and it garners a plethora of benefits. It can eliminate live medium-voltage components even inside the switchgear, in turn preventing failures from moisture, dust, animals and even tools touching the medium-voltage current-carrying portions. The result is a more reliable and environmentally robust design. It also extends product life versus traditional switchgear and can reduce equipment footprint by up to 60 percent.
IO: What’s the main reason a data center professional would want to implement 2SIS technology?
JR: The main reasons we hear from data center customers for using 2SIS are safety, footprint and reliability. A 2SIS system reduces the likelihood of an arc-flash event more than any other switchgear design and at the same time helps to prevent aging issues such as partial discharge and corrosion. Additionally, facility managers have found that that they can better manage their electrical-room space with a small-footprint, front-access-only design of medium-voltage switchgear.
IO: How does it address safety differently?
JR: The biggest safety benefit is the decreased likelihood of an arc-flash event. Additionally, we found that creating intuitive operation using safety interlocks to avoid inadvertent operation or access to live components helps to prevent unfortunate incidents. We’ve found that it’s always better to address safety issues with engineered solutions built into the switchgear. When they’re combined with the traditional use of proper labeling, procedural regulation and personal protective equipment, we can help to create a much safer work environment.