Tackling the Environmental Impact of SF6 Gas in Switchgear

by Peter Betts, Engineering Director at VIRTUS Data Centres

Electricity is called a utility for a reason. It powers lighting, heating, cooling and refrigeration, and is vital for operating appliances, computers, electronics, machinery, electric vehicles and public transportation systems. Switchgear is a critical component of the electricity infrastructure because it maintains the seamless operation of power networks. However, the widespread use of sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) gas in switchgear presents an environmental challenge.

SF6, widely-known for its effectiveness in switchgear applications, carries a severe drawback: it is a ‘greenhouse gas’ that has long played a part in global warming, similar to that of carbon dioxide (CO2). But it has a global warming potential (GWP) tens of thousands of times worse, and annual emissions growing (SF6 rose 24% between 2008 and 2018). It’s also believed that the actual level of SF6 released into the earth’s atmosphere is being underestimated because tracking its release in developing countries is difficult. 

Peter Betts, engineering director at VIRTUS Data Centres, explains: “Today, the wider understanding of the potency of this gas and the need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is causing a rethink of the use of SF6 gas, so it is imperative for us in the data centre industry and other electricity-intensive sectors to take the lead in driving change. If we champion innovative switchgear solutions that eliminate the use of harmful SF6 gas, we can demonstrate our ongoing commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainability and make a positive difference.”

Understanding SF6 Gas and its Environmental Impact

Switchgear is an essential component of critical power systems, particularly in data centres, large power stations, wind turbines and electrical sub-stations in town and cities – all of which have high power requirements. SF6 gas is often used in high voltage switchgear due to its unique properties that make it ideal to insulate live electrical parts and switch the flow of electrical current on and off. 

Although  SF6 is highly stable, non-toxic, non-flammable and electronegative (meaning it will not form other compounds that will alter its state and effectiveness), when exposed to high temperatures, it transforms into a harmful powder, posing severe risks to human health. Despite relevant personnel receive training on the proper handling, containing SF6 gas is challenging, leading to permissible leakage levels that pose environmental and safety concerns. 

Betts added: “Whilst the European Community has already taken steps to eliminate SF6, the UK hasn’t yet implemented such regulations. But with industry leaders like us at VIRTUS, actively promoting the discontinuation of SF6 switchgear and looking for innovative sustainable alternatives, change can happen.”

The Importance of Driving Change

He continued: “Even in the absence of legislation, it is crucial for the industry to drive innovation and make environmentally responsible choices. At VIRTUS, we recognise the importance of being at the forefront of this change. We firmly believe that by actively advocating for SF6-free switchgear and encouraging its adoption, data centre operators and the industry can demonstrate their commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainability.”

Due to its energy usage, the data centre industry is in a position to use its influence to create market demand for SF6-free switchgear. By calling for its use, operators incentivise manufacturers to invest in research and development, leading to the innovation of more environmentally friendly solutions. 

“Taking the lead in the data centre industry, we can also inspire and drive the charge for other sectors to do the same,” Betts urged. “As a society, we are becoming more reliant on electricity produced by renewable sources. As green as this may be, SF6 is not only used in data centres but also in renewable energy production, including wind and solar, and its usage is likely to increase with the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) and other energy-hungry applications that require switchgear to prevent serious accidents. By taking a proactive stance and promoting the use of SF6-free switchgear, we aim to encourage other sectors to follow suit. Change can be driven by market forces and isn’t solely reliant on legislation.”

Exploring Alternatives to SPF in Switchgear

As the industry seeks to reduce the environmental impact of SF6 gas in switchgear, there is a growing focus on exploring and adopting sustainable alternatives. Several promising solutions have emerged that offer effective insulation and arc-quenching properties, without the harmful environmental effects associated with SF6. 

  1. Air-Insulated Switchgear (AIS):

Air-insulated switchgear relies on air as the primary insulation medium, eliminating the need for SF6 gas. By harnessing air, which is a natural and abundant resource, AIS significantly reduces the environmental impact. It offers reliable performance, simplicity, and ease of maintenance. AIS has been widely adopted in various applications and is a mature technology. However, it is important to note that AIS has certain limitations in terms of compactness and its ability to handle high voltages efficiently.

  1. Vacuum-Insulated Switchgear (VIS):

Vacuum-insulated switchgear utilises a vacuum as the insulation medium instead of SF6 gas. Vacuum offers excellent dielectric properties, making VIS an effective alternative. VIS provides high reliability, low maintenance requirements, and a compact design. It has gained popularity in medium voltage applications and is now being developed for high voltage applications as well. The absence of SF6 gas in VIS eliminates the associated environmental risks.

  1. Development of New Gases:

Researchers and manufacturers are actively working on the development of alternative gases with lower global warming potentials (GWPs) compared to SF6. These gases aim to provide effective insulation and arc-quenching capabilities while minimising the environmental impact. Some promising alternatives under investigation include nitrogen (N2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and fluoroketones (FKs). These gases exhibit significantly lower GWPs, making them more environmentally friendly options for switchgear insulation.

  1. Solid Insulation Solutions:

In addition to exploring gas alternatives, efforts are underway to develop solid insulation solutions for switchgear. Solid insulation materials offer excellent electrical insulation properties and eliminate the need for any greenhouse gases. By using solid insulation, switchgear systems can achieve long-term sustainability benefits and reduce their environmental footprint.

It’s important to understand that the adoption of alternative solutions may require adjustments in design, engineering, and manufacturing processes – and many are currently in their infancy. However, as industry demand for SF6-free switchgear grows and technology advances, these alternative solutions are becoming more accessible and viable.

Key Considerations and Looking Ahead

Whilst the cost implications of adopting SF6-free switchgear are not yet fully understood, driving market demand is likely to lead to improved affordability. As more manufacturers invest in research and development and scale up the production of alternative switchgear solutions, economies of scale can drive down costs. The more stakeholders express their preference for SF6-free switchgear, the more favourable the cost-benefit equation becomes.

Betts concluded: “Addressing the environmental impact of SF6 gas in switchgear is not limited to data centres alone – affecting various sectors heavily reliant on electricity. However, due to its fast growth, the data centre industry has the power to drive change by creating market demand for SF6-free switchgear. By advocating for its use, manufacturers will be incentivised to invest in research and development, fostering the innovation and development of environmentally friendly alternatives. This market-driven approach, prioritising innovation, can lead to a wider adoption of sustainable switchgear solutions. We hope to inspire the industry, set an example for other sectors, and catalyse a ripple effect of sustainable practices. Together, we can pave the way towards a greener and more sustainable electrical ecosystem.”

Partner Resources

Popular Right Now

Edgecore Insight Podcast

Ep-1: Navigating the Waters of Sustainability

Others have also read ...

article

2019 – 2020 What – Where – Why

Edge computing relying on location, latency and bandwidth has increased with IOT demands. It is not an instead of but complimenting traditional Enterprise facilities, colo and cloud to get closer to the data source or end users. Where 5G is rolling out enterprise opportunities will follow along with edge facilities. Edge growth in other regions will be more of a steady increase until their network is upgraded

Click to View
upcoming event

Northern Virginia: Date TBC

Meeting “Datacenter Alleys” growing sustainability challenge. Northern Virginia continues to dominate as the largest data center market in the United States, and the world.

Click to View